The fear of water, or aquaphobia as its more commonly known, affects millions of people around the world. Healthline reports that 19.2 million adults in the United States alone suffer from this phobia. Now, it looks like that fear may finally be put to bed.
Researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Optronics, System Technologies and Image Exploitation (ISOB) in Germany have created a specialised robot that has been designed to save people from drowning.
According to the German life-saving association the Deutsche Lebens-Rettungsgesellschaft (DLRG), nearly 420 people drowned in Germany in 2019 with the majority losing their lives in freshwater lakes and swimming pools. One reason this figure is so high is because of the lack of trained lifeguards to watch over pools and open bodies of water.
To rectify this issue, a team of researchers set out to develop a unique aquatic robot that is meant to assist lifeguards and lifesavers, and rescue swimmers in emergencies.
In terms of rescuing people in closed-off environments like a swimming pool, the robot uses a set of surveillance cameras mounted on the swimming pool’s ceiling to register the movement patterns and position of the drowning person in the pool, and send the coordinates to the robot.
The robot is safely stored away from prying eyes in a docking station on the swimming pool floor, which opens in an emergency. Once the vehicle has reached its destination, it locates the endangered person and carries them to the surface.
In terms of rescuing people in open water locations like lakes and dams, drones and zeppelin systems take on the task of the surveillance cameras. For rescues in swimming lakes where the visibility is restricted, the underwater vehicle is equipped with acoustic sensors instead of optical ones. Sound wave echoes can be used to determine people’s positions and orientation so precisely that the robot can autonomously head for the target person and pick them up.
The robot has been proven to work in practice through the very impressive open-water testing that researchers conducted at the Hufeisensee lake in Halle. An 80-kilogram dummy was deposited at a depth of three meters. The robot then picked it up, secured it in place, brought it to the surface within a second, and carried it via the shortest route – a distance of 40 meters – to shore, where the rescue team was already waiting.
“The full rescue operation lasted just over two minutes. Casualties must be resuscitated within five minutes to avoid long-term damages of the brain. We were able to stay within this critical time frame without any problems,” said Helge Renkewitz, a computer scientist who led the project.
The current version of the Aquatic robot is equipped with batteries, a motor, cameras, and optical and navigational sensors. The system is around 90 centimeters long, 50 centimeters high, and 50 centimeters wide. The objective of Renkewitz’s team is to further reduce the size of the rescue system and build different versions for use in swimming pools and lakes.
They aim to make it smaller, lighter, and more cost-effective than the current prototype, which is based on a pre-existing underwater vehicle.
Picture: Fraunhofer IOSB-AST