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Student designs compact lifesaving drone for beach rescue teams after witnessing teenage surfer battle dangerous waves

In 2017, while on holiday with his family in Cornwall, Loughborough University student Dominic Leatherland witnessed a teenager become detached from their bodyboard and pulled out to sea due to rough conditions.

He watched as two off-duty lifeguards battled the waves to reach the struggling casualty, but the height of the waves and speed of the water made it difficult to reach them quickly.

Dominic says at one point the teen was without a flotation aid for around 35 seconds and, though thankfully the rescue mission was successful, he was left thinking “why can’t we just fly something over the waves and drop a flotation device with the casualty?”.

The Product Design and Technology student decided to explore the idea for his final year project and found using drones for this scenario had been prototyped.

However, the drones used were large, commercial drones and carried big, bulky rescue equipment – meaning they couldn’t be easily loaded onto the back of a rescue quad bike or a car, and certainly not transported on foot.

Dominic, who held a National Pool Lifeguard Qualification (NPLQ) for six years, wanted to design a smaller and more portable system that could be deployed much faster – even by emergency personnel without specialist lifeguard training – as time is of the essence when someone in the water is in danger.

As part of his final year project, Dominic has designed ‘SERVITA’ – a small, compact drone that flies above hazardous waters to locate individuals in distress and deploys a buoyancy aid that automatically inflates when hitting the water, helping casualties stay afloat while they wait for a rescue team to reach them.

SERVITA rendering flying over water SERVITA. 

The proposed design uses technology such as GPS, a live-feed camera, and two ‘servo’ mechanisms that allow the pilot to control the pitch angle of the camera and the inflatable-release mechanism.

The inflatable buoyancy aid uses existing technology inspired by automatic inflating lifejackets, and, though this technology is not inherently new, Dominic says its use and deployment via drone is a new application.

“I picture SERVITA being used by beach lifeguards and emergency services to provide rapid support to individuals who are in aquatic distress and the time in which they can be rescued is increased by variables such as distance, sea conditions, and location, or the casualty is deteriorating rapidly”, said Dominic.

“This product is needed to help save the lives of weak swimmers where rescue cannot be performed immediately.

“The early intervention SERVITA can provide could be the matter of life and death for some casualties.”

SERVITA rendering on sand SERVITA components. 

Dominic has created a functional prototype of the drone and accompanying inflatable, and testing has been conducted on a small scale.

He also used turbulence and velocity simulations in the product’s developmental phase to ensure SERVITA’s design allows for optimum drone performance.

Velocity simulations for SERVITASERVITA velocity simulations.

Though the designer has already been offered a job after university with respiratory and ballistic protection manufacturers Avon Protection – where he helped develop a ventilation hood that has the potential to save lives of COVID-19 patients – he hopes to one day develop SERVITA further and conduct tests over open water in simulated emergency scenarios.

Dominic said: “Ultimately, the aim of the product is to preserve life and reduce the rate in which casualties deteriorate in water to reduce their injuries and impacts on health.

“I believe it is important to design for the time of our greatest needs.”

SERVITA is being showcased as part of the Degree Shows 2021, which can be viewed here.

Notes for editors

Press release reference number: 21/152

Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

It has been awarded five stars in the independent QS Stars university rating scheme, named the best university in the world for sports-related subjects in the 2021 QS World University Rankings and University of the Year by The Times and Sunday Times University Guide 2019.

Loughborough is in the top 10 of every national league table, being ranked 7th in the Guardian University League Table 2021, 5th in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2020 and 7th in The UK Complete University Guide 2022.

Loughborough is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in the Times Higher Education’s ‘table of tables’ and is in the top 10 in England for research intensity. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, Loughborough has been awarded seven Queen's Anniversary Prizes.

The Loughborough University London campus is based on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and offers postgraduate and executive-level education, as well as research and enterprise opportunities. It is home to influential thought leaders, pioneering researchers and creative innovators who provide students with the highest quality of teaching and the very latest in modern thinking.

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