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Local search and rescue trainer uses new AI underwater lifesaving technology


William Bolton is used to the long gruelling hours that come with his work in search and rescue in the Waterloo Region area.

With several years under his belt as a senior trainer in advanced tactical search and rescue, Bolton has taken on plenty of daunting tasks including the search and recovery of human remains.

“We're more than happy to attend anything and help anyone to bring closure to the families,” Bolton told CTV News.

The hours-long searches are common for rescue teams, but thanks to a new device, those lengthy search times have been cut down significantly.

“This is the type of equipment we're looking at to be able to advance the searches for the families,” he said.

AquaEye, a tool made in Vancouver, is making waves in water rescue operations.

“I decided I wanted to create a tool that would allow, you know, a 16-year-old kid under extreme stress to be able to just jump in the water, and in 60 seconds, locate a person and get them out in time,” said Carlyn Loncaric, creator of AquaEye.

Loncaric says this is the first hand-held sonar device that uses artificial intelligence to specifically locate people underwater.

“When you pull the trigger it'll made a sound beam so it's going to be sending out sound signals and then those sound signals are going to hit objects in the water and an echo is going to be returned,” she said. “We've trained it over time with a machine learning algorithm to actually recognize, you know, what does an echo look like when it's hitting a person versus not. And so this tool is being used in a lot of recovery but rescue is our goal.”

Loncaric first came up with the idea while working as a lifeguard during university, where she studied micro-electronics as an engineer. Those two passions quickly aligned when she noticed the gap in the technology available to rescuers.

“When you can't see through the water, it feels really hopeless. I just started building a prototype, I gave myself three months, gave myself another three months to find a first customer and then things really took off from there.”

It's a device that is being hailed as a game changer.

“The biggest frustration I’ve had on searches is delay after delay, and that's what I’m looking forward to, is to be able to close it faster and move on. It will bring closure to the family sooner,” Bolton explained.

He also says it’s very user-friendly.

“It is a screen that you basically just read, you scan and you read the screen. If there is a potential body in the scanned area, it'll put an X on the screen for you and then you would then just focus at where that X is and you would then have a direction. It’s got a scale on it to show how far out that X is.”

So far, 1,000 AquaEye units have been sold in 46 countries. 55 of those units have been sold in Canada and 15 of those have been sold in Ontario.

Loncaric says this is only just the beginning in improving search and rescue efforts.

“It's been it's been pretty overwhelming to kind of go back to where I started to building this thing in my bathtub, to then having people say, you know, they wish they'd had it sooner. We've had people thanking us for creating it. It's really about drowning prevention, it gives you a sense of hope. So it's really nice to see kind of communities working together,” she said. Top Stories

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