Co-founder and Director at Cape Town-based startups WhiteBison and eLabs, Mikhail Wertheim Aymes, is the latest young innovator to emerge who is using his love for industrial design and technology to develop a specialised drone that can save people from drowning. Mikhail recently sat down with eHealthNews to talk about his innovative product and his aspirations for technological innovation. 

As far back as I can remember I’ve always wanted to build things, from guitars to go-karts, and as a result spent most of my spare time in my dad’s workshop. While my interest got side-tracked in my teenage years with high school responsibilities, after matriculating it took nine months of traveling and two years of studying a Bsc in International Business Administration in Amsterdam for me to realise my true calling of industrial design. I think at heart I have always been an inventor, and my education has only served to formalise that within me.

Tapping into the technology revolution

Over the past few years we have seen huge developments in the realm of 3D printers and multirotors (drones). The growth of the smartphone industry has made sensor technology exponentially cheaper and has thus made the technology accessible to the masses, specifically in the application of multirotors. However, the growth of the consumer drones for the purpose of photography has contributed to their bad reputation.

After building my 3D printer as a side project in my third year studying Industrial Design at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), I had the means to build a drone. I wanted to show the benefits of drone technology and therefore decided to build the Guardian Drone as part of my Btech thesis.

Identifying a problem that needed a solution

Originally I wanted to create a shark-detecting drone, but felt this lacked a social impetus. By chance I heard a story where two people had drowned when one was caught in a riptide and someone tried to save them but also succumbed to the situation. I decided to investigate how I could leverage drone technology to offer support in these types of situations. So I joined a lifeguard training programme at Clifton 4th beach where I learnt the ins and outs and dangers of saving people in these situations and preventing them to begin with.

In the process of the lifeguard training, I identified that the risks involved with saving someone were very high. When a person starts to drown they start panicking and become very unpredictable and try to cling onto the lifesaver, which makes the situation even more dangerous.

While torpedo buoys have been effective in terms of their buoyancy, durability and streamlined design, which helps the lifeguard reach the patient quickly, they lack a user-centred design focus in terms of the needs of the patient as well as those of the lifeguard. I therefore wanted to find a solution that could quickly deliver a buoyancy aid that was user friendly.

Designing the solution

Over four months I designed and built a lifesaving buoyancy aid and packaged it in a capsule-like shape small enough to be mounted onto a drone. I then adapted and redesigned a drone design to create a link between the buoyancy aid and the aircraft so that it could be remotely triggered to release the aid into the water near a person in trouble.

The buoyancy aid automatically inflates on contact with the water, and has a whistle, straps, handles, reflective strips and a lead so that the lifeguard can haul the patient back to shore. The patient can also be secured to the aid so that they can’t let go or come loose while the lifeguard is pulling them back to shore.

In the event that the patient is unconscious, the aid is designed to make applying rescue breathes easier and more effective than existing lifesaving buoyancy aids. Studies have shown that rescue breathes are often the difference between life and death in these types of situations.

Putting the Guardian Drone to use   

The Guardian drone is not intended to replace the lifeguard, but rather to be adopted within the Lifesaving body to enhance the outcome of a rescue.

The system can also detect sharks by processing the imagery from the on board camera, which can be done by a person receiving a live stream from the drone or autonomously through image processing software.

My main and only concern at the moment is the restricted flight time due to the battery life. However, it’s only a matter of time before the technology catches up. In the meantime I got around this obstruction by creating a route to fly every 15 minutes with pre-designated way points around the bathing area. This would in a way create a virtual shark net and with the height advantage one would be able to detect an incoming shark before it becomes an actual threat.

While the product still needs further refinement, when it’s market ready I plan to market it to multinational corporations. For example DHL, who is a sponsor of Western Cape lifesaving and, because they are already showing an interest and experimenting with drones for logistics purposes, they could easily sponsor and implement this product in all their clubs.

Following the creative drive

I’m fascinated by technology in general, and by improving it will help to enable more good. In the future I want to work on payload technology for drones so that they can be used to bring state-of-the-art healthcare into rural settings. However this requires improved battery life, which will happen in a matter of time.

In my professional capacity I’ve already co-founded two startups: eLabs, with a classmate and two of my lecturers to develop an electric scooter called the “WATT”; and WhiteBison, which started after a year-long Btech subject called “5K” that required students to create a product from scratch making, selling and earning at least 5K profit in order to pass. We created an all-in-one portable product photography studio, called The SOOC Studio, which allows you to use a smartphone or any DSLR to capture good product photography with minimal editing. Our product has been very successful both locally and internationally.

From my experience, innovation comes from being excited and happy with the work you are doing; it also comes from having your finger on the pulse and knowing what are the new trends, technologies and influencers in your field of interest. But most importantly, innovation comes from that ability to identify the gap or opportunity, and once you know what it is, my advice is to take that opportunity and give it your all. If you believe in it, and it excites you, then it will surely be worth it.

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