IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Pennsylvania YMCA Pilots AI-Enabled Robot Lifeguards

The device, which can be mounted in the corner of a pool, uses artificial intelligence to recognize body parts and learn how humans act in the pool in an effort to identify and prevent drownings.

The Easton-Phillipsburg branch of the Greater Valley YMCA is piloting an artificial intelligence anti-drowning system named Coral Manta in its indoor swimming pool. The robotic detector, from Coral Detection Systems, scans the pool for drowning activity but will not replace lifeguards.
(TNS) — The device resembles a stingray, except it doesn’t patrol the water in search of prey.

It’s perched at the edge of the water, and rather than threaten humans, it aims to save them.

It’s much louder, too — emitting a piercing, high-pitched alarm when it sees a motionless human head beneath the pool’s surface for more than 15 seconds.

From a corner of the pool at the Easton/Phillipsburg Branch of the Greater Valley YMCA, the Coral Manta 3000 knows a human head from any old beach ball. The machine, which the branch is testing on behalf of YMCAs across the country, uses artificial intelligence to recognize body parts and learn how humans act in the pool in an effort to prevent drownings.

It’s not that the branch has had any drownings in the last 25 years, branch Executive Director Lori Metz said. Nor will the robot replace lifeguards.

“It’s not reactive,” said David Fagerstrom, CEO of the Greater Valley YMCA. “It’s proactive.”

Sobering statistics

Despite the emergence of fancy pool alarms, camera monitoring systems and drowning prevention interest groups, death rates among children in swimming pools have barely budged over the last 20 years.

Drowning is the second-leading cause of unintentional deaths among children in the United States, second only to transportation-related accidents. The death rate looks small, especially when data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is whittled down to drowning deaths in swimming pools, but it is consistent: about 1 child death per 200,000, or 342 children in 1999 and 385 in 2018, according to CDC data.

But when considering how many kids ride in cars versus swim in pools every day, it’s an “astronomical mortality rate,” points out Kevin Trapani, CEO of insurance company The Redwoods Group.

Drowning as a whole — oceans, pools and bathtubs — claimed the lives of about 3,500 people a year in the U.S. from 2005 to 2014, a 2015 World Health Organization study found.

Fagerstrom said he has been looking for affordable artificial intelligence systems off and on for the last 15 years. In January, he discovered the Coral system, developed by Israeli software developer and budding entrepreneur Eyal Golan, CEO of Coral Detection Systems.

Golan’s product came to market over the summer.

When Fagerstrom reached out, Golan hadn’t heard of the YMCA, but it didn’t matter much. In addition to the device’s $2,500 price tag, Fagerstrom liked Golan’s mission.

Six years ago, while thinking of his own swimming pool and his children, Golan thought, why not use artificial intelligence for pool safety?

“Like most parents, I am a concerned dad,” Golan said.

Two months after he and a partner started developing their idea for a system that could charge itself and require no human intervention, two 10-year-old girls drowned in a backyard pool in a Tel Aviv suburb. Their names were Coral and Or.

Golan decided to name his technology after them.

“Drowning happens so quickly and so quietly,” he said. “We cannot expect people to be robots and machines and never lose sight of children for three, four, five straight hours.”

For the next six months, the Easton branch will test the system and see how it adapts to the six-lane pool. Though Golan developed the technology with private pools in mind — it sees clearly about 10 yards by 10 yards — the YMCA will give Golan feedback on how to better adapt the system to larger facilities, where people of all ages swim from 6 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. The branch paid for four systems — one on every corner of the pool — out of its own operating budget.

After the pilot, the Greater Valley YMCA will consider expanding the technology to its other branches. Metz said YMCA is searching for grant opportunities, and will bring its results to the attention of the Pennsylvania State Alliance of YMCAs.

“There are a ton of YMCAs out there that would love to have something like this that’s affordable,” Fagerstrom said.

‘We want no one to drown’

Golan certainly isn’t alone in developing artificial intelligence systems for pool safety.

Adam Katchmarchi, executive director of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance, said any new technology that aims to make pools safer is a welcome development as statistics remain stagnant.

“Because something does have to change,” he said.

Katchmarchi has seen computer-assisted drowning detection systems dating back 10 or 15 years. In the commercial realm, a product called Poseidon is well known, and he said he’s seen a surge in products that have reached the design stage in the last three to five years. It’s been tough for any one of them to really take off, he said.

“Those systems can be cost prohibitive,” he said. “They’re not cheap.”

A Poseidon system, for example, costs between $150,000 and $300,000.

Trapani, whose Redwoods Group represents about half the YMCAs in the country, said Poseidon approached the group with its technology in the early 2000s. About 15 YMCAs in the country have Poseidon technology installed, he said, but the cost barrier creates an equity issue, where YMCAs in economically challenged neighborhoods are less likely to afford the technology.

“Our mission is not to just save wealthy kids’ lives,” Trapani said. “We want no one to drown.”

His YMCA clients also have beta-tested wearable bands that emit radio frequencies when submerged for too long or when swimmers show signs of distress, but the company that manufactured them closed in January.

The Coral system, on the other hand, is passive, meaning it does not need human intervention to activate or deactivate. It watches swimmers on its own, having filtered through millions of images to learn what human heads look like. The machine emits a chirp when a person enters the pool, then learns who that person is so it won’t chirp again if they hop out and hop back in. The system also connects to mobile devices, which will sound should the alarm get triggered. It powers itself on and off, charging primarily with solar power. In the indoor YMCA’s case, officials charge its back-up battery every few days.

There have been other AI systems Trapani has seen since Poseidon, but none at Coral’s price point and that distinguish between a person drowning and a person diving to the bottom of the pool on purpose.

It’s tough even for lifeguards, who often face high turnover and hot and humid conditions, Trapani said.

“What we ideally want is perfect lifeguards, but even perfect lifeguards have certain barriers,” he said.

Drowning detection technology can only add to layers of protection, which include lifeguards, fences, swim lessons and awareness campaigns, Katchmarchi said.

He can’t say any particular tool will decrease risk by any particular percentage, but he can point to one tried-and-true adage among safety advocates:

“You don’t know which layer of protection will save a life until it does,” he said.

©2020 The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.