DULUTH, Minn.-Two Duluth firefighters floated in Lake Superior on Tuesday, waiting to be rescued, but it wasn't a human in a boat coming to their aid.
A 24-pound unmanned water rescue drone sped through the water toward the firefighters, its movements directed by a firefighter on shore using a remote control. When it reached the firefighters in the water, they grabbed onto a set of handles and were pulled to shore by the drone - formally named an Emergency Integrated Lifesaving LanYard, or EMILY for short.
After bringing the firefighters to safety in the simulation, the operator continued to practice driving the drone past beachgoers watching from the shore.
The Duluth Fire Department is considering purchasing an EMILY drone, and firefighters, along with first responders from other area agencies, gathered to test its capabilities in Lake Superior on Tuesday. The drone, which can float with six to eight people holding on to it, also carries a detachable lifejacket and helmet along with a two-way radio that allows first responders to talk with the person needing help.
With an extensive amount of shoreline, Duluth is among the worst spots in the Great Lakes for rip currents, said Duluth Fire Capt. Brent Consie. The department has about six water emergencies a year that require first responders to deploy a boat.
"One of our biggest concerns with rescue is with rip currents," Consie said. "When we've got an east wind or a wind that's about 10 to 15 miles an hour like we might see here on Thursday, we have currents that actually flute water back off shore so people who are caught in rip currents can really be taken by surprise. Tourists or people who are not familiar with our waters get into a situation where there's potentially a drowning. We want to be able to get to them as fast as we possibly can."
Response time is critical when it comes to Lake Superior because of its cold temperature, Consie said. He added that the drone would allow first responders to reach someone needing help faster than the department's current capabilities. Even if it was a situation in which first responders need to retrieve the person, they could send the drone ahead for the person to hang on to until they arrive at the spot.
"Technology is always changing. ... This water drone is a different approach to it because the drownings happen so fast and our conditions change so fast. We're looking at ways - how can we improve? How can we use technology to keep improving our deliverance of service?" Consie said.
On Lake Superior, the EMILY is in use by the Marquette Fire Department and at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and Little Presque Isle, said Jeff Loman of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community.
Aanikoosing Inc., the community's economic development corporation, is the distributor of the drone in the Great Lakes region via its Great Lakes Unmanned Systems Center. The EMILY was created by Hydronalix, based in Tucson, Ariz.