We've all seen the images of refugees fleeing Syria and other areas, making harrowing and dangerous water crossings where inflatable, unstable boats often capsize or fall apart. The governments of the nations where the refugees are arriving as well as many NGOs have people working tirelessly to help these refugees make it safely to places like Turkey and Greece, but they're overwhelmed by the huge amount of people taking to the water everyday.
Last year more than a million people embarked on these sea crossings to Europe, but 4,000 did not make it.
Researchers at the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M University (CRASAR) have recently deployed robotic life preservers they developed to Lesvos, Greece, an island that sees 2,000 refugees arrive on its shores daily, to help save lives and assist life guards and volunteers to get people to shore.
The robot named Emily for Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard is like a life preserver strapped to a jet ski. It's tied to a 2,000-foot tether and can be deployed from shore or from a boat. An operator remotely controls the robot and guides it to migrants needing help. Struggling swimmers grab hold of the robot -- it can hold up to five at a time -- and the operator reels it in back to shore.
The operators are assisted by a quadcopter on a 30-foot tether that provides an aerial view of the scene and helps spot people in trouble.
CRASAR says Emily is particularly important for closing "The Gap" that exists in these types of sea rescues:
“The Gap” represents a type of no-mans land for lifeguards. It’s the area that the deeper water patrol boats (such as the Hellenic Coast Guard cutters use in the channel between Turkey and Greece and the smaller rigid hull inflatable boats used by NGOs) cannot enter due to draft restrictions but is too far out for lifeguards on shore to wade and has to be approached by a swimming lifeguard. If the boat capsizes, people fall or misjudge the depth and jump off, or the boat runs aground, the lifeguards in patrol boats are not in position to help. The lifeguards on land have to swim floatation devices out, taking valuable time and risking panicking people trying to climb on their heads.
Another challenge posed by “The Gap” is what happens when multiple boats arrive. Lifeguards on shore have to split their attention and may lose situation awareness of what is going on, especially in behind boats or sides that are blocked from view.
The Emily robots run at a speed of 20 mph and can operate for 20 minutes at full speed before needing a recharge, which the researchers say is enough for several trips since it's only propelling itself while going out.
“We can run the boat out there and we can start plucking people that can actually hold on and get them out of the way,” John Sims, a fire captain formerly of the US Coast Guard and operator of the Emily robots in Lesvos said to Wired. “And then the live lifeguard can do his job and get out there to get the unconscious people.”
The Emily robot has been used in American waters successfully, but its role in Greece will really test the technology. The makers are prepared for shortcomings to be discovered, but they're confident that it will make a difference and help save lives. The Emily team is already raising money to leave one of the robots in Greece when the team has to leave.