At the University of California Santa Cruz, a team led by Professor Alex Pang is innovating with AI algorithms to enhance beach safety by detecting and monitoring potential hazards along shorelines.
This groundbreaking technology, as reported by the Santa Cruz Sentinel, could significantly aid lifeguards by alerting them to dangers like rip currents, which, according to safety expert Gerry Dworkin, are responsible for the majority of ocean lifeguard interventions.
Pang discovers rip current through personal experience
Pang, inspired by personal experiences while windsurfing, realized the challenge of identifying rip currents with an untrained eye.
“They would point out a rip, and I would look in the water and say, ‘That’s just water,’” he recounted.
AI technology to enhance rip current detection
This insight led to the development of the AI technology aimed at making these currents more detectable.
The National Weather Service notes that rip currents can carry sand, organisms, and other materials offshore, presenting a significant risk to swimmers.
Prioritizing rip current prevention and safety measures
While safety experts advise swimming parallel to the shore to escape rip currents, prevention remains crucial.
Chris DeJong, a former national champion swimmer and founder of the Big Blue Swim School, also emphasizes the importance of heeding flag warnings at beaches.
Collaboration with NOAA to advance real-time rip current detection
For this AI project, Pang’s team collaborated with Gregory Dusek, a scientist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who has developed a model predicting the probability of rip currents.
Pang’s model aims to enhance this by providing real-time detection using technology that improves its recognition abilities over time.
Machine learning: Teaching technology to recognize rip currents
Using machine learning, a subfield of AI, the team has “trained” their algorithm with images to recognize rip currents.
This aspect of AI, as MIT describes, allows technology to learn and adapt without being explicitly programmed.
AI’s role in distinguishing dangerous rip currents, expanding water safety
The goal is for the system to alert lifeguards only when people are detected in dangerous rips, potentially distinguishing between swimmers and surfers.
“Ideally, the system will send alerts to lifeguards only if there are people detected in the rip. If necessary, it can distinguish between people and surfers,” Pang explained.
The potential of AI in water safety is not limited to ocean shores.
YMCA in Michigan implements swim safety technology for drowning prevention
A YMCA in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has implemented technology from the Israeli company Lynxight in its aquatic center.
This tech is designed to detect swimmers in distress, aiding in drowning prevention efforts.
AI’s promising role in enhancing aquatic public safety
The research at UC Santa Cruz represents a significant advancement in the use of AI for public safety, particularly in aquatic environments.
By leveraging machine learning, Professor Pang and his team are on the cusp of developing a system that could not only detect rip currents in real-time but also provide critical, potentially life-saving information to lifeguards.
This work highlights the expanding role of AI in various aspects of public safety, offering innovative solutions to longstanding challenges.