Will robots replace lifeguards?

| February 13, 2014 | 0 Comments

Ah, the promise of technology. Watch the video above and you’re sure to think that robots — flying ones at that! — will soon replace lifeguards. The drone is even shown to beat a human lifeguard to a drowning victim by a sizable amount of time. (Remember, seconds count in drowning emergencies.) It’s not the first time machines have been shown to be superior to humans in drowning rescues, either. Another robot recently made similar headlines. “E.M.I.L.Y.” (Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard) also shows great promise, and is being tested in California.

“The little red robot can cut through waves at up to 40 miles per hour for up to 35 minutes, and it can patrol at five miles per hour for over 500 minutes before needing a recharge, according to the manufacturer’s site. It only weighs 25 pounds, and can be a floatation device for up to six people.”

There’s also a less sexy technology that uses underwater cameras to detect potential drowning victims and sound an alarm. More and more public pools are being fitted with the device, which has been shown to save lives as well. A similar system exists for natural water venues.

Lifeguard on beach

Can this guy expect to be put out of business by robots? From Tony Alter.

As with all technology, these kinds of machines have their place in water safety. No doubt, they will save lives. Where the line becomes blurred is what else they can do: save money — a lot of it. Ask any open water manager or pool operator and they’ll quickly tell you that their biggest expense is staffing, i.e. lifeguards.

It’s tempting for city councils and other bureaucrats who hold the pursestrings to start cutting those budgets in favor of machines that don’t need breaks and won’t ask for raises. Citizens who see the Jetsonian marvels might also begin to wonder why their towns are spending precious funds on lifeguards who seem to do little more than work on their tans. At the same time, some lifeguard experts worry that if used, such machines will make guards less vigilant, potentially putting lives at risk.

It’s important to remember that while these technologies show great promise, they are in the end, only machines. For now, nothing short of a robot that displays the same intelligence and critical thinking as a human brain can or should replace a vigilant lifeguard. A machine may be able to save someone from drowning, but it won’t know how to scan the water for at-risk swimmers (an essential lifeguarding skill) to prevent potential tragedies in the first place. And as anyone with a smartphone knows, technology isn’t always reliable.

Make no mistake, this isn’t some kind of Luddite rant against technology. Aquatics needs to embrace the EMILYs of the world and learn how to best use their strengths to augment what lifeguards already do. But in the process it’s important to remember that these machines should not be seen as a replacement for lifeguards. Rather, they’re just one more layer of protection in the effort to prevent drownings.

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Category: Natural water, Safety

About the Author

Gary Thill is the former editor of Aquatics International, an award-winning magazine for the commercial pool and waterpark markets. He is a nationally recognized writer and editor with an extensive communications background that includes print, online and social media.

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