The Dolphin 1 Unmanned Surface Rescue Vehicle in use in a rescue situation.
The efficiency of life-saving equipment used in a drowning situation can come down to a matter of seconds and possibly life or death. Technology and response times are improving and continual technological advances are making the water a bit safer.
Enter Ocean Alpha’s Dolphin 1, an Unmanned Remote Surface Vehicle, which has the ability to both cut through waves and, more importantly, has the lift and buoyancy to carry victims back to safety.
The water jet engine design of the Dolphin 1 Unmanned Surface Rescue Vehicle.
Ran Zhang, general manager of Ocean Alpha Limited based in Hong Kong, has been involved in products for high-end industrial applications as well as government contracts. The primary focus of his high-end services has been in designing unmanned surface vehicles, optimizing data collection and auto-piloting systems for the marine industry. His company holds over 92 patents.
Zhang said the reason the Dolphin 1 Lifebuoy was developed was because they wanted to “push an intelligent life saving device to other countries to benefit people’s lives and make the world better.” They did it using their knowledge of remote control, propulsion and battery advances.
While the Dolphin 1 Lifebuoy can be used in ocean rescues or on oil/gas platforms, Zhang said its lower price point and portability make it affordable for boat owners and possibly surfers.
The best example of the lifebuoy’s use is in a potential drowning.
Traditionally a person would use a life-saving buoy. But many times, either from a boat or shore, the buoy is thrown in high water, “In most cases, you cannot reach the victim,” he said.
Compared to a conventional lifebuoy, the Dolphin can be thrown in the water and launched very fast. Through the research and development process, Zhang and his engineers were diligent in creating high buoyancy in the PE [Polyethylene] plastic design.
The Dolphin has a buoyancy of 70 pounds which is very high. To understand this metric, it is important to understand that a 125 pound person only weighs six pounds in the water.
By this extension, the Dolphin can sustain and propel to safety three full size people. But this requires a degree of power.
Zhang said that “for the battery power, we had to keep balance” which means an equilibrium of thrust and consistency.
In their first prototype, the endurance of the battery was one hour. But it made the lifebuoy too heavy.
By reducing the battery life to 30 minutes, the weight of the Dolphin 1 went to 30 pounds making it much leaner.
While Zhang admits the battery life is not enough for multiple rescue tasks, it has big power, 1.8 kilowatts. At full power, when used, the velocity is 6.5 feet per second barring heavy wave resistance. “So it can bring the victim to safety in a very short time,” he said.
The Dolphin 1 is built with two propellers which are encased inside separate housings. They act as water jets “so nobody can be hurt by the blades inside.” There is also a bumper built around the blades with soft rubber for protection. This way if the Dolphin is grinding on rocks or the bottom it won’t suck water.
Because of this, the Dolphin can work upside down if necessary.
This kind of use also encouraged another design innovation.
The batteries, made for more robust power, are lithium, so they can be recharged easily. But even more groundbreaking, Zhang explains that both battery packs, on each side of the lifebuoy, have individual waterproof designs.
“So even if there is a hole in the hull and water gets inside, it will not leak water inside batteries. So it’s 100 percent guaranteed safety for that purpose.”
For the remote control mechanism, they chose a 2.4GZ frequency because, in most countries, that is the free license frequency range.
The Dolphin 1’s normal minimum control distance is 1,650 feet “but actually, it can go up to 2600 feet in range. [However] beyond 1,000 feet in high surf you won’t be able to see the lights.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s raining or there is wind or high waves, it can all still survive, but we would recommend if the waves are too high and the current is more than the speed of the Dolphin 1, it will be very hard to control it, Zhang said.” In high waves, the higher the remote user can be, the more effective the rescue.
At beach communities, advances like Dolphin 1 Lifebuoy can provide a backup to the human factor with an enhanced degree of portability, power and, most importantly, the ability to lift weight.
Safety in the water is a precious commodity and with this kind of vehicle now available, the future promises to save more lives.