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Dalhousie prof pitches unmanned marine vehicles for rescues

Emily is one of a new class of ocean-going drones designed for gathering weather data. 
(HYDRONALEX)
Emily is one of a new class of ocean-going drones designed for gathering weather data. (HYDRONALEX)

Unmanned vehicles and drones have become a hot topic in recent years for their vast number of potential commercial and military applications as well as for concerns surrounding their use.

Now a Dalhousie professor is pitching the use of unmanned marine vehicles in search and rescue as a way to supplement existing capabilities.

John Dalziel is a naval architect by trade and worked for decades with the Canadian Coast Guard. Today he’s a consultant and an adjunct professor of industrial engineering at Dalhousie.

On Wednesday he is making a presentation on the application of unmanned marine vessels in maritime search and rescue to the Company of Master Mariners, a nautical professional organization, at the Maritime Museum in Halifax. He gave a similar presentation last year at the International Maritime Rescue Federation Future Technology Panel meeting in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Speaking with The Chronicle Herald, Dalziel said with unmanned vehicles already being used on land and in the air for search and rescue purposes, and unmanned marine vehicles (UMVs) becoming more common, it’s only a matter of time before potential applications in this area are realized.

“The use of unmanned marine vehicles for search and rescue is certainly in its infancy. There’s no real use of any degree to date,” he said “I’m not providing any great answers here, but opening an issue that is worthy of investigation.”

While Dalziel says he doesn’t ever expect autonomous vessels to replace trained crews in rescue situations, he has studied a number of scenarios where they could be used in conjunction with existing capabilities to save lives and reduce risks to first responders.

For example, Dalziel said, man overboard situations, inclement weather or rough water rescues, or search and rescue close to shore are all scenarios where controlling an unmanned vehicle remotely could assist rescue operations without putting a crew in danger.

“If you’re launching from a ship in heavy weather you could do this much more quickly, you wouldn’t have to get a crew fitted up in survival gear, and you can do it without the same degree of risk. At the end of the day with a UMV you’ve only written off a small machine if it goes wrong.”

Additionally, Dalziel said UMVs could be placed in regions with limited search and rescue access, or where it’s too dangerous for rescue crews, as a “better than nothing” approach.

With unmanned aerial vehicles already being used by police departments in missing person searches, Dalziel said UMVs could also provide search capacities in bodies of water both above and below the surface.

According to Dalziel, countries have used UMVs in search and rescue missions only to a very limited capacity at this point — for example, small buoy-like devices called Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyards (EMILY) are used in the mediterranean by rescue workers to help pull stranded refugees out of rough waters.

But, he said, the technology is well under way. There are several major companies worldwide developing UMVs of various types, and Dalziel said both surface and submarine UMVs are starting to be used by navies for things like mine detection and oceanographic work. Last year the UK Royal Navy completed held an entire two-week exercise dedicated to unmanned systems called Operation Unmanned Warrior.

While these vehicles will be pricier than their manned counterparts due to the amount of equipment required to make them remotely controlled, Dalziel said they could save money in the long run by reducing the use of crews in some situations.

But the main benefit, Dalziel said, will be the potential for less risk in dangerous situations for rescue crews, and increasing the chances of saving a life where one may not have previously existed.

“There’s certainly questions to be answered, like how do these vehicles help someone who can’t help themselves,” he said, “It’s in the continuum between nothing and being at the front entrance of a hospital. It’s a whole lot more than nothing.”

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