Just in Time for Summer: New Drowning-Detection Technology

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
May 28 2013 10:38 AM

Just in Time for Summer: New Drowning-Detection Technology

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Lifeguards could use a little help from technology.

Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Summertime and the living's easy—unless you're a lifeguard. Then it's your job to monitor 100 screaming monsters as they splash, thrash, and generally try to drown one another. Worst of all, the ones who actually are drowning might make no sound at all as they slip below the water's surface. But a promising new crowd-funded product called the SEAL System aims to assist poolside parents, lifeguards, and anyone else who worships at the altar of Better Safe Than Sorry.

The technology is simple. Each kid wears a band around his neck that keeps a constant wireless connection to a monitoring hub. (It looks a little like a dog collar, but the plastic band is designed to safely disconnect if you yank on it.) When the band goes underwater, the connection is broken, and a timer starts. If the band doesn’t resurface in a set amount of time, the lifeguard’s own band lights up, buzzes, and vibrates. (The swimmer’s band and the hub also react.)

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Obviously, swim time would be sort of lame if you can’t go underwater. That’s why the product’s creator, an emergency physician from North Carolina, has developed four settings that allow various ages and skill-levels to enjoy the water. At the lowest level, the alarm goes off the instant the band is submerged—which is great for infants and wandering toddlers. At the other end of the spectrum, the alarm only sounds in the direst of circumstances, so older kids and athletes can do what they need to do but with an additional level of safety. Each band has a unique electronic signature so multiple swimmers can be monitored simultaneously by the same hub. Warning and “full-alert” alarms even distinguish between various levels of threat.

After a Memorial Day weekend spent watching half a dozen kids of various ages run around an eight-foot-deep-pit-filled-with-liquid-death, the SEAL System makes all the sense in the world. Aside from birth defects, drowning is the leading cause of death among kids aged 1-4. For those 1-14, it’s the second leading cause of death behind only car crashes. And for the macho men out there who think this would never happen to them, almost 80 percent of drowning deaths are males. Eighty. Freaking. Percent. Even this simple technology might have saved the life of the rock climber who drowned at a Tough Mudder event in West Virginia this April.

The SEAL System currently has 20 days left to reach its goal of $85,000. (It’s raised about $15,000 so far.) The company has already developed a fully functioning prototype and is seeking funds for manufacture and distribution. The best part is, the technology is portable and scalable—so a single family could take it with them to the community pool to monitor their own kids, or a swim class at the YMCA could use it to supervise a whole group. Just going by the initial donation model, $600 would buy you six swim bands, two guard bands, two hubs, and two chargers. (Once the company is on its feet, you’d presumably be able to buy individual swim bands, since each hub is capable of syncing with twelve different electronic IDs.)

Will it mean adding false alarms to the ruckus of deck-side recreation? Sure it will. But who wouldn’t rather hear a false alarm than an ambulance?

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Jason Bittel serves up science for picky eaters on his website, BittelMeThis.com. He lives in Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter.

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