Boaters may soon have a new safety device to carry aboard their vessels—the Automated Integrated Distress Device (AIDD), invented by George Borlase, a mechanical engineer with The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), in Laurel, Md. Should mariners get into trouble, the device would automatically fire flares and flash a strobe to alert boaters within an 8-mile radius that help is needed.
"Currently there's no way to automatically signal distress to other vessels near your boat," Borlase says. "You have to manually fire a flare gun or send a mayday message using your marine radio—devices that might not be accessible in a marine accident."
The AIDD is a cylindrically shaped, waterproof device approximately 12 inches tall with a small beacon on one end and a control switch on one side. Aboard a vessel, the AIDD would be mounted upside-down in a small metal bracket with a hydrostatic release, and stored in "automatic" mode. It would be placed near a boat's captain or pilot house to be easily accessible when used in "manual" mode to alert a nearby rescue boat or helicopter. There's also a "test" mode to ensure the replaceable lantern battery has enough power to operate the AIDD in an emergency.
If a boat sinks to depths of 20-30 feet, the hydrostatic release would automatically cut a strap, allowing the device to turn right-side up and float to the surface, which would trigger a strobe to continuously flash and flares to begin firing in a timed sequence. As a precaution to anyone near the device, a horn would sound several seconds before any flares were fired.
Although the prototype (recently tested on APL's pond) holds eight flares, Borlase envisions multiple AIDD units produced that will house different numbers of flares to meet Coast Guard requirements for various sizes of recreational and commercial vessels. The overall design could easily be modified to incorporate an Emergency Positioning Indicator Radio Beacon (EPIRB)—another safety device required for most commercial and recreational boats that venture far offshore.
A former naval architect with the Coast Guard, Borlase has conducted many maritime accident investigations. His inspiration for AIDD came after investigating the worst domestic fishing vessel accident in 50 years. "When the Arctic Rose sank in the Bering Sea in 2001, 15 people were killed despite a partnering boat operating nearby," he says. "I'd like to think the crew might have survived had the AIDD been available."
The Arctic Rose sank within minutes in an area with spotty radio coverage, Borlase says. Even though the crew's EPIRB relayed a GPS signal through channels that eventually reached the Coast Guard, it was four hours before a rescue plane reached the area. "There was no sign of the boat or most of the crew," he says. "It was as if they had fallen into a hole in the ocean.
"Commercial fishing in the U.S. is one of the most dangerous professions," he says. "There's a need for great improvement in marine safety." Convinced he could apply his engineering talents to this challenge, in 2003 Borlase sketched the device on a napkin—and later realized the concept while at APL. "It took approximately a year-and-a-half to go from concept to prototype," he says.
APL's Office of Technology Transfer (OTT) recently applied for patents for the device, and is pursuing various licensing opportunities.
"This project is an example of how APL can help inventors realize their ideas while, in this case, developing a robust solution for a critical marine-safety challenge that could one day save lives," says John Bacon, OTT's technology manager for the device.
Borlase is excited about the possibility of his invention being used throughout the maritime community. "If I read a news story someday about how this device helped save the lives of boaters, it's going to feel great," he says. "I'll feel as if I've really made a significant difference."