Innovative Approach to Find Victims Lost at Sea

Sensors mounted on the boat measure wind speed. A buoy is dropped in the water to measure wave and current speeds. All this information is transmitted to a super computer, about the size of a cell phone, to analyze the data in real time.

An algorithm predicts where a rescue object will be. GPS is used to steer the boat in that direction where additional measurements take place. Once there’s a high degree of confidence the object is in that area, the Coast Guard will dispatch rescue boats and helicopters for the search.

“We conducted a real-scale experiment dropping six-foot mannequins, along with full scale Coast Guard mannequins into the water. We tried that in real-time and got amazing results,” Bhaganagar said.

Using an unmanned rescue vessel to pinpoint likely search locations helps minimize risk for Coast Guard personnel, who spend fewer hours randomly searching over open seas. Boats, helicopters and highly-trained rescue operators are also expensive to deploy. Reducing their time on the water leads to more efficient operations, which saves taxpayer dollars.

Working on the unmanned rescue project not only helps the Coast Guard but also helps students gain valuable research hours as they pursue their graduate degrees. Another benefit is the experiential learning opportunities they gain. This interdisciplinary project allowed them to work with fellow students from different disciplines with differing expertise. To complete the project, the team used mechanical engineering, fluid dynamics and machine learning principles.

There were also many unique hands-on opportunities outside the classroom. The students used UTSA’s campus recreation pool to test prototypes and work out mistakes early in the process, Bhaganagar said. After their designs were perfected, they attached the LIDAR sensor device to the boat and hauled it to Galveston. There, they worked alongside U.S. Coast Guard personnel putting the unmanned rescue vessels through its paces in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Seeing an object drift in open water and understanding the signs is a great value and something you can’t get in a classroom or from a textbook. That was an amazing experience,” said Brun, who conducted field tests in Galveston. “Interacting with the Coast Guard engineers was also very exciting and very valuable for the students.”

“The opportunity to support the United States Coast Guard through this project is an excellent example of collaborative research and experiential learning we are committed to offering our students,” added JoAnn Browning, dean of the UTSA College of Engineering and Integrated Design. “Working with people who have different engineering backgrounds will equip our students with the essential skills they need to succeed in an increasingly competitive employment market.”

With the success of the prototype, DHS gave Bhagnagar the green light to apply for a three-year grant to advance the project. The U.S. Air Force and Office of Naval Research are also interested in the technology UTSA developed. Both agencies are monitoring how the unmanned rescue vessel progresses for possible use in the future.

Additionally, the ground-breaking technology of integrating sensing and data analytics developed as a part of this project will provide an important foundation for CAMEE activities with a focus on extreme events.