Project Ryptide relies on UAS technology to save lives

By Patrick C. Miller | April 30, 2015

A software developer and a group of high school students who designed an attachment that turns an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to a lifesaving device have plans to take their idea to another level.

Bill Piedra, a Connecticut software developer with more than 30 years of experience in radio-controlled aircraft, came up with the idea of using a UAV to drop an inflatable life preserver to a swimmer in trouble. When he was 14 and living in South America, he saw a swimmer pulled far away from shore by a rip current.

“It was something that always stuck in the back of my head,” he recalled. “As I was building radio-controlled airplanes, I realized they weren’t quite the right tool. But as the multi-rotor drone evolved, it was a natural.”

That was the inspiration for Ryptide, a device that attaches to a DJI Phantom UAV and enables it to drop a life preserver that automatically inflates on contact with the water, providing timely assistance to a swimmer in distress.

Piedra had previously worked with Susan Heintz, director of computer science and digital applications at King Low Heywood Thomas High School in Stamford, Connecticut. He turned to her and her computer science students—Joey Widder, Nick Smith, Connor Murphy, Thomas Catenacci and James Lewis—to design the mechanism that drops the life preserver.

The result was Project Ryptide, funded through a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than its $10,000 goal. A video showing the UAV and life preserver in action attracted national and international attention with inquiries coming from Brazil, France, Spain, Japan, New Zealand and Korea.

“We’re going to continue on with our project to refine and develop it further,” Piedra said.

The Stamford Fire Department demonstrated the value of using Ryptide to help rescue people who have fallen through thin ice. According to Piedra, firefighters also suggested the idea of using the UAV to drop a tether during ice rescues.

“The fire departments said if you can attach a rope to this thing, it’s a total game changer,” he noted. “Their biggest risk in an ice rescue is the risk that the rescuer has to take in getting out on to the ice.”

One upgrade Piedra wants to incorporate in Ryptide is a FLIR (forward looking infrared) camera that works with an autonomous navigation system. The camera would be used to lock on to the swimmer’s location and then automatically guide the UAV there.

“A person in the water on a FLIR camera image stands out like a bright beacon,” he explained. “We’re using the onboard computer and machine vision software. The operator would simply select the person in the image and the drone would fly by itself using the onboard computer as its navigator, then drop the life preserver.”

Because of the lifesaving potential of Ryptide, Piedra said he wants to share the technology with any organization interested in using it. He’s considering another crowd-funded campaign focused on creating awareness.

“We want to organize demonstrations around the country showing this product, showing the tools that we have developed or that others have developed to show first responders how they might be able to use it,” he said.

Discussing Project Ryptide with first responders and other organizations involved in emergency services has helped Piedra recognize its true potential.  

“There’s a tiny window of time before a lifeguard knows there’s somebody in the water in distress and the time they can actually get in the water,” he explained. “If we can just fill that gap, it can be really critical. It might only be three minutes, but a person can’t live underwater for three minutes.”


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