Greece is using drones and robotic lifeguards to rescue shipwrecked Syrian refugees

As the Syrian civil war rages on, more and more citizens are displaced by the violence. Every day, refugees stream across the borders of Syria into the neighbouring nations of Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq. Some even flee into Europe to escape the conflict — but rather than making the journey on foot, many choose to take a shortcut across the Mediterranean Sea and find their way into Greece. It’s a quicker route, but more often than not the boats used to make the trip are rickety and unsafe, and life vests are often in short supply.

More than 4,000 refugees have died at sea since the war broke out, so in an attempt to protect the roughly 2,000 refugees that arrive on the Greek island of Lesvos every day, the local Coast Guard has enlisted the help of a robot named EMILY: the Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard.

The Lesvos Coast Guard invited Texas A&M University’s Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue to develop EMILY as a pilot project. The robot has been used to save stray swimmers in the United States, but it has never been tested as a lifesaving resource on the scale of the European refugee crisis. EMILY itself is basically just a four foot long buoy, controlled remotely by a human operator. The cable that tethers EMILY to a boat or shore outpost can extend up to 2,000 feet, so the operator can guide the robot to migrants lost at sea and then reel them in to safety. EMILY also works in conjunction with an array of Fotokites, which are tethered, camera-equipped quadcopter drones that can feed visuals to the operator from up to 30 feet in the air.

EMILY can run at 20 miles per hour for about 20 minutes on a full charge, which is enough time to make a good number of rescue trips. Once the operator guides EMILY to a refugee at sea, both EMILY and the person holding on are reeled in manually, so no propulsion power is needed. Furthermore, with EMILY on the Coast Guard’s team, human rescue experts and lifeguards can prioritize unconscious victims that wouldn’t be able to actively grab on to the buoy without assistance.

The Texas A&M team, the Lesvos Coast Guard, and more than 80 NGOs working in the region all have high hopes for the divide-and-conquer strategy EMILY has enabled. But even so, there are risks involved with integrated robot rescue, including the danger of EMILY’s 2,000 foot tether getting caught in the propellers of uncoordinated rescue boats. Until now, the Coast Guard has prohibited any rescue groups from launching their own boats without express permission for precisely that reason. However, now that the Lesvos Coast Guard has given official consent to the collaborative robot rescue program with EMILY, it’s possible that the rescue effort will be able to keep refugees safe on the dangerous crossing from countries like Syria.