The summer months may be over, but Israelis and Israeli visitors often head to the beach year-round to soak up the sun, cool off in the Mediterranean, meet friends, or unwind after a long day (or week) – away from smartphones and social media.
Time at the beach inevitably comes with risks and in some situations, even the best-trained lifeguards may not be able to help.
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According the World Health Organization (WHO), drowning is the third leading cause of unintentional injury death worldwide, accounting for seven percent of all injury-related deaths. It is the leading cause of death in children between the ages of one and four and the second leading cause of death in children between the ages of five and nine. A WHO Global Report says some 372,000 people drown every year.
While the risk of drowning can be reduced when lifeguards are in the vicinity, those lifeguards can only cover a certain expanse of beach at a time. Also, they need breaks. And they can rely heavily on binoculars and their own vision only for so long — eyesight (and stamina) can certainly falter after hours in the full sun.
An Israeli startup leveraging computer vision technology wants to help. Founded in 2018,Sightbit says it can prevent drowning by alerting lifeguards when swimmers are in danger.
Through the use of a system of beach cameras that utilize the tech, lifeguards get a panoramic view of the water, the beach, and the swimmers, which allows the guards to make rapid rescues or prevent dangerous situations from escalating. The camera footage is displayed on a screen, which is monitored by lifeguards and beach staff.
Behind the scenes, Sightbit algorithms analyze the footage in real-time. When the system detects a threat —such as a rip current or a child alone in the water — it displays warnings on the screen or sounds alarms.
The software allows lifeguard to track more swimmers – and keep them safer, the company says. Sightbit also offers risk analytics which provides data about locations where guards are most needed.
The camera footage is sent to a processing unit, which may be on-site, or on the cloud, where the company’s software analyzes visuals on an individual feed. The camera projects real-time images on a screen, which can be monitored by beach staff, or lifeguards.
The system also provides real-time data on rip currents and other hazards.
“We have developed a tool that beaches can use as they see fit,” Minna Jacobson, the company’s co-founder and marketing director, tells NoCamels, “It will change the way beaches operate today.”
No lifeguard can monitor all swimmers and hazards simultaneously, she explains. The Sightbit system can be customized so that the user gets to decide how much of the beach can be tracked at once.
Jacobson says the product provides drowning alerts based on the user’s preference. If the lifeguard wants to know when a person is in deep water or when a child is going in, the system can be customized to do so. There are also visual alerts including lines to mark boundaries or hazardous areas or a red flashing box to track a specific person.
The Sightbit team believes its system can “shake up the world of ocean rescue.” “We’re not just building a product that beeps at lifeguards. We are revolutionizing ocean rescue,” Jacobson tells NoCamels.
The system, currently in its research and development phase, is already highly accurate, the startup says. In a year or two, the company expects to be many times more effective than lifeguards at identifying drowning threats or other risks to swimmers, Jacobson says.
Not only will the system help save lives, it will also save money, Sightbit claims. With some $11 billion spent annually on beach management in the US and another $3.8 billion in beach equipment according to Sightbit’s research, the startup says it can save authorities approximately $2 billion in labor costs.
“The system will allow beaches to save money by allowing them to hire fewer guards or allow beaches to guard more shoreline (many beaches would like to guard larger sections of shoreline but they can’t afford to hire additional guards, which are very expensive),” Jacobson explains.
She also says Sightbit has few competitors as there are no other AI-powered lifeguard systems for beaches are currently in place, according to the research. There are other solutions, but were created for pool systems, not the beach.
“The social impact of Sightbit was a big draw for me,” Jacobson says. “It’s a project that really contributes social value.”
Companies and institutions have begun to see the potential of Sightbit’s innovative system. Cactus Capital, the first student-run university venture capital firm in Israel and a venture arm of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) partnered with the company to provide an initial round of funding as well as a network of resources.
Sightbit is also part of the 11 participating startups that make up the second cohort of Yeshiva University’s Innovation Lab.
Pilot program in Ashkelon
In order to understand what the system needed to be at the top of its game, the four-person team that founded Sightbit, which includes Jacobson, CEO Netanel Eliav, CTO Jenia Golbstein, and Operations Director Adam Bismut, interviewed dozens of lifeguards across North Carolina, California, Maryland and New York.
The team is also entering its first pilot program with the coastal Israeli city of Ashkelon, by implementing its system on several beaches in the area including the central Bar Kochba beach.
“The pilot allows us to test our algorithms in real beach conditions,” Jacobson says. “Right now, we are focusing on improving our core functions,” she says. “A machine knows better what constitutes a threat.”