Robotic rescue boats to replace lifeguards at a popular lake in Hefei, China

BEIJING (CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - An aquatic robot has started its job as a lifeguard in Hefei, Anhui province, and it is expected to eventually replace dozens of human lifesavers.

The robot, believed to be China's first unmanned speedboat, was officially launched in Tian'e Lake on July 3 after months of trials.

The boat, measuring 2.8m long, is equipped with cameras, infrared sensors and acoustic sensors to detect "moving targets" in the water, according to Mr Zhang Bao, deputy general manager of Anhui CAS-Huacheng Intelligent Technology, a company affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Hefei Institute of Physical Science.

"A radio transmitter built on an island in the lake helps the boat divide the water into different sectors," he said.

When a person, often a swimmer, is getting close to the danger line, which is invisible, it will warn him or her of the danger with a loudspeaker.

Once the person crosses the danger line, the speedboat will locate him or her, and go to the person in danger while sending alerts to the command centre and human lifeguards via an app, so that a rescue team can take action promptly.

If drowning person is able to grab the boat, it will bring the person to safety, Mr Zhang said.

Tian'e Lake was opened to the public in 2004.

"At least 66 people have drowned," said Mr Wang Xu, an official with the local water police. "Fifteen of those died in 2016."

No drownings have been reported since the company put a trial boat in the lake in November 2016, according to Mr Zhang.

Although the lake is only about 1.5km from east to west and 800m north to south, local authorities have employed about 110 lifeguards working in four shifts a day to patrol the lake.

"In the future, most of the lifeguards will be replaced by the robot," Mr Zhang said. "The boat, powered by a battery, can be used to patrol rivers, reservoirs, lakes and seas - not only for security purposes but also for environmental surveillance and data collection."