Boaters may soon have a new safety device to carry
aboard their vessels: the Automated
Integrated Distress Device, invented by George Borlase, a
mechanical engineer with
Applied Physics Laboratory. Should mariners get into
trouble, the device would automatically fire
flares and flash a strobe to alert boaters within an
eight-mile radius that help is needed.
"Currently there's no way to automatically signal
distress to other vessels near your boat,"
Borlase said. "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
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
If a boat sinks to depths of 20 to 30 feet, the
hydrostatic release would automatically cut a
strap to allow the device to turn right side up and float
to the surface, triggering a strobe to
continually 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
the production of multiple AIDD units that would 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, a 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 said. "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 emergency positioning indicator radio
beacon 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. It was
as if they had fallen into a hole in the
ocean," Borlase said. "Commercial fishing in the U.S. is
one of the most dangerous professions. There's
a need for great improvement in marine safety."
Convinced he could apply his engineering talents to
this challenge, Borlase in 2003 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 said.
APL's Office of Technology Transfer 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," said
John Bacon, OTT's technology manager for the device.
Borlase says he 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 said. "I'll feel as
if I've really made a significant difference."