Search & rescueInnovative Approach to Find Victims Lost at Sea

Published 6 August 2021

Researchers are completing a year-long project with the U.S. Coast Guard to develop an innovative and cost-effective approach to managing rescue operations at sea.

A UTSA team is completing a year-long project with the United States Coast Guard to develop an innovative and cost-effective approach to managing rescue operations at sea.

Taking a cue from the technology behind self-driving cars, a group of five graduate students and three undergraduates studying engineering has contributed to building an unmanned rescue vessel, said Kiran Bhaganagar, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, who is leading the project.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) awarded UTSA nearly $500,000 to advance the Coast Guard’s approach to rescue missions.

“For the past 20 years, the status of the research of tracking any objects lost in the ocean has reached a stalemate with no significant progress being made,” said Bhaganagar, who is also director of the university’s NASA Center for Advanced Measurements in Extreme Environments (CAMEE). “UTSA is an urban serving university that is committed to tackling the grand challenges facing society. We knew we could help improve this process.”

Data from the Coast Guard shows it responded to 16,845 search-and-rescue operations in 2020. These operations totaled well beyond 50,000 rescue hours. Searching for a capsized boat, downed aircraft or humans floating in the sea is often like looking for a needle in a haystack. Wind and currents can create unpredictable drifts. An object thought to be in one location can be far off course.

“The rescuers try to follow the wind. They look at the wind speed and the wind direction. After four hours, they try to determine where the object could be,” Bhaganagar surmised. “But what they seriously miss is the levy drift, which happens because of the ocean current. That is the big challenge with ocean rescues and what the Coast Guard is asking us to solve.”

The UTSA team included graduate students Prasanna Kolar, Ryan Beckmann, Daniel Brun, Stanford Martinez and Syed Mohammad. Undergraduate members of the team included Zachary Riddle along with Finn Burmeister-Morton and Joshua Lee from the Honors College. Together, they combined a mix of technologies to develop a new process to find objects at sea.

An important piece is light detection and ranging (LIDAR) technology, a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure variable distances. To improve search and rescue, the students built a platform on a 19-foot boat where the LIDAR rotates continuously 360 degrees. They added stereoscopic depth cameras on each side of the platform. The two cameras, along with the LIDAR, collect 100 images per second.