This wearable could save your life at sea

4 Oct 2018

Gavin Nicholl and Ryan McGovern, co-founders of SeaBeacon. Image: TechWatch

If you were lost at sea, how could rescuers know your position? Emily McDaid spoke to a young entrepreneur who may have the solution.

SeaBeacon is one of those ideas that’s so simple, you wonder why it hasn’t been invented yet.

It’s a wearable emergency beacon, wrapped into a sports watch, that gives your position using GPS technology to rescuers, should you get into trouble in the water. It’s aimed at recreational surfers, swimmers or other people using the water near shorelines who could be swept out to sea by a riptide.

“It will replace your existing sports wearable,” said COO Gavin Nicholl. Nicholl is one of six co-founders, all of whom are completing their final master’s degrees in electrical and electronic engineering at Queen’s University Belfast.

‘The device not only assists any rescue operation, but it helps prevent trouble in the first place’

I ask Nicholl how the team came up with the idea for SeaBeacon. “The Scottish surfer Matthew Bryce got caught in a rip current and was dragged out to sea for 32 hours. Rescuers couldn’t find him in the water. Maybe that was because he had drifted 26 miles, from Scottish waters towards Northern Ireland, by the time he was found.”

Nicholl goes on: “Initially, we wanted to create something that would prevent that.”

The sports wearable will ideally include features known to athletes – heart rate, distance, performance over time etc – but safety is SeaBeacon’s primary function. “It will show you how close you are to shore. You hit a button that sets a reference point when you’re on the beach and the GPS will calculate the distance you’re away from that.”

In that way, the device not only assists any rescue operation, but it helps prevent trouble in the first place. The technology behind SeaBeacon relies upon a signal box that must stay on the shore. This is so that the swimmer, surfer or boater can raise a signal for help, should they run into trouble.

I ask Nicholl to explain how that works. “A relay box – something small, around the size of a drinks can – will stay on shore, and it communicates via radio link to the wearable SeaBeacon. The relay box connects to rescuers, like the coastguard, via GSM network if the person gets into trouble at sea. It sends the coastguard an SOS, plus location information, using longitude and latitude coordinates.”

Nicholl said that they have a working model, using an Arduino Uno prototyping board.

animation of seabeacon equipment including a watch and a close-up of the watch face with a warning sign displayed on it.

Image: SeaBeacon

I ask him why this hasn’t been invented yet. “People are overcomplicating things,” he said.

I like this answer, because the best technologies are the simplest. I ask him to go on. “The direction a lot of companies take is to use a satellite device, but that comes at an extremely high cost – £25-per-month subscription to use the satellite network, compared to our £4 a month,” said Nicholl.

How much will the device itself cost? “We think we will sell it for £200, and the manufacturing costs per device are £72.” Sounds like a good financial proposition.

How far along is the development? He said: “We have the SeaBeacon and relay box and they both function, with the safety features, at the moment to a distance of 1km. To create a further prototype suitable for testing would require significant cost – we’d be looking for investment at that point.”

Have the experts had their say? Nicholl said: “We took our proof-of-concept device to HM Coastguard in Bangor in January. We got quite positive feedback and they said if we came back with a fully developed product, they would run tests with RNLI.”

It makes sense that the coastguard would be interested because products like this can give them something even more valuable than a successful single rescue: data analytics that could help reduce the necessary number of rescues over time.

Nicholl explained: “Every time someone activates it, we store the location and we can create a danger hotspots map. We’ll plan to publish this on our website to show where a lot of people are getting into difficulty, raising awareness.”

Over time, it would help the coastguard by reducing the number of incidents occurring in the first place, reducing search times with the exact GPS location of the person.

Nicholl said: “They are looking at using drones. They could even send out a rescue aid or an inflatable, or even just a camera, to see if the person is there.”

By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch

A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch

SeaBeacon is a finalist in the annual Invent competition run by Connect at Catalyst Inc, aiming to showcase the best and brightest innovators that Northern Ireland has to offer. Invent 2018 will take place on Thursday 11 October in Belfast, where 12 finalists will battle it out for a £33,000 prize fund.

TechWatch by Catalyst covered tech developments in Northern Ireland