A student capstone team from Michigan Technological University gets a close look at a maritime rescue helicopter during an Oct. 19, 2018, team gathering. The group is collaborating with the Air Force Research Laboratory and the U.S. Coast Guard to design a compact, high-capacity maritime rescue device. (Photo courtesy of Mark Bobal, U.S. Coast Guard)

Saving lives at sea: AFRL designs compact rescue raft for Coast Guard

Air Force Research Laboratory junior force researchers are working with a Michigan university to design a maritime rescue device that could save lives during sea emergencies.

Researchers from the AFRL, a team of engineering students from Michigan Technological University and the Coast Guard are working together to design a compact, high-capacity rescue device that can be deployed quickly at sea, according to Wright-Patterson news release.

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Current emergency lifeboats on cruise ships and other vessels could be useless if a ship is listing heavily to one side. In a scenario like this, the lifeboats on both sides of the vessel may be impossible to deploy.

To address potential hazards, the Coast Guard wants a “lightweight, ultra-compact, easily-deployable raft” that would be capable of carrying large numbers of passengers for up to 24 hours, the release said.

The device could be dropped from a helicopter and deployed for short-term use until rescue vessels could arrive on the scene. The goal is to design a device that would hold 100 people and weigh 100 pounds or less.

During the ideation session at Traverse City, the Coast Guard arranged for a special visit that included a helicopter tour and interviews with helicopters pilots, crew members, and rescue swimmers. This up-close perspective helped the students understand how the project’s strict weight and space requirements were derived and to view ocean rescue situations from an operator’s perspective.

“It’s an entirely new design space,” said 2nd Lt. Elias Johnson, AFRL project manager, in a statement. “Most of the current life rafts are designed to meet ‘safety of life at sea’ requirements. That requires rafts to have flares, extra safety equipment, and be capable of staying afloat for several weeks. With this effort, we just want to keep people out of the water until larger rescue crews can arrive.”

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