Robots and Drones Being Used to Rescue Refugees in Trouble at Sea

An EMILY bot (the red floatation device in the water) guides a boat to shore

Researchers have begun deploying remote-controlled robotic devices in the waters off the island of Lesvos, Greece to assist rescue efforts for refugees arriving by boat.

Autor*in Anna Rees, 02.04.16

Researchers have begun deploying remote-controlled robotic devices in the waters off the island of Lesvos, Greece to assist rescue efforts for refugees arriving by boat.

Sea crossings undertaken by boats carrying refugees from North Africa and the Middle East to Europe are extremely dangerous: flimsy boats and rubber dinghies are overloaded with more passengers than they can handle and can capsize or become damaged during the journey and break apart before they reach their destination. According to figures from the International Organization for Migration, more than one million refugees came to Europe by boat in 2015 while almost 4,000 lost their lives at sea. Just last month, two boats carrying refugees sank in the Aegean Sea.

The vast majority of those who survived the journey and entered Europe came via the Greek islands (around 850,000 people in 2015). An estimated 2,000 people arrive daily on the island of Lesvos, stretching the capabilities of the Coast Guard to reach and rescue everyone in trouble at sea. In order to assist rescue efforts, researchers from the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) based at Texas A&M University in the US recently launched a pilot project in Lesvos that uses remote-controlled robotic devices and drones to seek out people in distress in the water and help pull them out of danger.

The project uses buoyant life preservers fixed on to jet skis. The devices, made by a company called Hydrolanix and dubbed EMILY (short for Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard), are each tethered to ropes that are up to 2,000 feet (over 600 metres) long and can be deployed from the shore or from a boat. Controlled by a remote operator and equipped with two-way audio, the bots are sent out to people in the water who are instructed to grab on (up to five people at a time) and are pulled to shore or to a rescue vessel. Alternatively, the devices can be sent out to boats and be used to guide the vessels to shore. Quadcopters attached to 30 feet of rope hover overhead to provide a real-time overview of the search area. The bots can reach speeds of up to 20 miles per hour and can operate at full power for 20 minutes before needing to be recharged.

Crucially, EMILY is able to operate in the so-called ‘no-man’s land’ in the water, an area about 100 metres offshore where rescue boats are not allowed (due to the shallowness of the water) and where lifeguards can only reach via swimming or using floatation devices.

© Hydrolanix/EMILY Training the crew of boat 618 of the Hellenic Coast Guard

EMILY robots can only assist people who are conscious and able to grab and hold on to the devices. In an interview with WIRED, the team behind the project stated that EMILY could be used to help conscious people, meaning lifeguards could then focus their efforts on those who are unconscious or severely injured.

The devices have been in use for awhile along US coastlines but have never been implemented in a search and rescue situation matching the magnitude of what’s happening in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, meaning unforeseen issues may arise. But action is better than inaction and the team is working fully with the local government and Coast Guard to deliver a coordinated rescue effort.

In order to keep the project going and be able to leave the robots in Greece, the team needs financial support. To make a donation, head to their Go Fund Me page or learn more about the project on the CRASAR website.

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