Nearly 40 years ago, Bill Piedra first encountered a victim of a riptide while at a beach in Brazil. He had just arrived in the country and had headed to the water, where he found a crowd forming. Together the group watched as a team of lifeguards struggled to get a boat in the water and paddle out nearly 500 yards offshore to rescue the distressed swimmer.
“At the time I thought to myself, I bet a radio-controlled airplane would be able to help someone like that,” recalls Piedra, CEO of Flying Robots and a self-described drone hobbyist.
Turns out he was on to something. Earlier this year, Piedra and a team of computer science students gathered for an unofficial extracurricular project working with drone technology. After various experiments, they ended up developing an attachment for a DJI Phantom drone called Ryptide, a life-saving accessory that enables an unmanned aerial vehicle to drop an automatically inflating life preserver to a swimmer in trouble in seconds. To support the effort, he launched a crowdfunding campaign Project Ryptyie in March. After tweeting out a video of Ryptide, the device garnered wide recognition from various media outlets, and the team quickly reached its goal. The first version of Ryptide became available to the public July 1 for $199.99. Of course, you also need a drone, which can run from $499 to $1,000 or more.
“We never thought students looking to work with robotics would get as big as this,” he says.
Now, thanks to extensive coverage and international interest from first responders in Italy, France and Japan among others, Piedra is once again headed to Brazil where he will be able to test his decades-old theory. During the 2016 Summer Olympics, a fleet of 64 drones will be deployed on the main beaches of Rio, including Leblon, Ipanema, Copacabana, Leme, Bara de Tijuca and Recreio, where he says upwards of 1 million visitors are expected daily.
“Rio is on the cutting edge of lifesaving technology,” he says. “The first lifeguard station was built on the beaches in Rio and it has since been a place that welcomes new technology.”
This may explain why the fire department in Rio and Sobrasa, the Brazilian life saving organization, quickly took to the idea. Over the course of the next year, the technology will be tested on site in stages. This month, the first round will take place at Barra de Tijuca in Rio using a single drone, funded by a sponsor in Brazil (the name of which has not yet been released) and conducted in conjunction with the fire department. In February, a second set of tests with a fleet of 9 drones will be held on the same beach, he explains.
Watch Ryptide in action.
While they await Rio, Piedra and his team are experimenting with other accessories, including a machine vision center that uses an infrared camera to detect a person’s body heat. They also are working closely with first responders to obtain feedback and use it toward their research and development. For example, they actively are pursuing a version of Riptyde that would accommodate a larger drone and carry four preservers.
“One is useful, but more than one has more value,” he explains. “You might miss on the first shot and frequently, especially in a riptide, there is more than one person.”
Although the rescue device is most applicable to the beach, Piedra says other arenas like at a waterpark or a giant wave pool would be options, too. It also has the potential to be used in a variety of settings, including a boat rescue, during a flood and even an individual that fell through ice.
“The diversity of applications is bigger than we ever really thought,” he says.