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### AI Developed by UC Santa Cruz Researchers to Prevent Incidents

In partnership with NOAA and funded by UC Santa Cruz’s Center for Coastal Climate Resilience, Alex …

At Seabright State Beach in November, Fahim Hasan Khan and Alex Pang were engaged in developing algorithms—sequences of designed instructions—that aim to monitor beach changes, identify rip currents, and alert authorities to potential accidents. This initiative is led by Pang and his team at UC Santa Cruz.

During the same period, Fahim Hasan Khan and Alex Pang could be seen standing in front of Walton Lighthouse, dedicating their efforts to creating algorithms—sets of structured instructions—that are designed to track beach alterations, detect rip currents, and signal for help in emergency situations. This crucial work is being carried out by Pang and his team at UC Santa Cruz.

Alex Pang and his team at UC Santa Cruz, based at the UCSC Center for Coastal Climate Resilience and led by Joel Hersch, are actively involved in developing algorithms—precisely crafted instructions—that have the capability to monitor beach dynamics, identify rip currents, and promptly alert authorities to potential risks.

At Seabright State Beach, Alex Pang and Fahim Hasan Khan were deeply engrossed in their work. They were focused on refining algorithms—meticulously designed instructions—that are essential for tracking beach changes, pinpointing rip currents, and ensuring timely responses to potential emergencies. This project is a collaborative effort between Pang and his dedicated team at UC Santa Cruz, as highlighted by Joel Hersch from the UCSC Center for Coastal Climate Resilience.

Scientists stationed at Walton Lighthouse have harnessed the power of cameras to detect rip currents along the shoreline. This innovative approach, courtesy of Santa Cruz University, demonstrates the commitment to leveraging technology for enhancing coastal safety measures.

As the spring season approaches, experts from UC Santa Cruz are at the forefront of developing artificial intelligence technology with the potential to save lives. Led by Alex Pang, the team is actively engaged in creating algorithms—carefully crafted sets of instructions—that can effectively monitor beach conditions, identify rip currents, and facilitate timely rescue operations. This collaborative effort with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, supported by UC Santa Cruz’s Center for Coastal Climate Resilience, aims to enhance coastal protection measures and ultimately save lives.

The genesis of this groundbreaking initiative traces back to a moment of inspiration while Pang and his colleagues were windsurfing. Pang recalls how a seemingly innocuous observation led to the realization of the importance of identifying rip currents accurately. This pivotal moment spurred the development of the rip current monitoring project following the tragic loss of two lives to drowning in 2015 at UC Santa Cruz.

Rip currents, as defined by NOAA, are swift, concentrated currents of water that pose a significant risk to unsuspecting individuals, potentially leading to exhaustion and drowning. Over the past decade, Santa Cruz Marine Safety has reported ten drowning incidents, including two in 2023, underscoring the urgent need for effective rip current monitoring and response mechanisms. These treacherous currents rank as the third most hazardous coastal threat, following only tsunamis and flooding, according to the National Weather Service.

Detecting rip currents from the beach can be challenging, with these hazardous phenomena often manifesting unexpectedly. Pang’s team explored various rip current detection methods before settling on a machine learning-based approach akin to the sophisticated monitoring systems utilized in autonomous vehicles. Leveraging machine learning, a form of artificial intelligence that enables machines to make decisions based on data, the team trained their system to identify key characteristics of rip currents by exposing the algorithm to a diverse set of images, some featuring rip currents and others without. Subsequently, the system was capable of detecting rip currents in real-time video streams post-training.

In collaboration with NOAA, Pang’s team continuously refines and enhances their detection techniques. By setting up a live video feed at Walton Lighthouse, capturing views of Seabright and Twin Lakes shores with the support of the Santa Cruz Harbor Office, O’Neill Sea Odyssey, and the U.S. Coast Guard, the team has deployed their machine learning model to detect and monitor rip currents along these coastal areas using real-time video feeds.

Greg Dusek, a NOAA scientist, has developed a predictive model that can be further refined and validated using Pang’s rip current detection model. This projection model assesses the likelihood of rip current formation based on storm conditions, wave patterns, sea levels, and sandbar configurations. Similar to weather forecasting, this model provides a predictive risk assessment ranging from 0 to 100%, offering valuable insights for proactive coastal safety measures.

Looking ahead, the research team envisions the development of an alert system that can be customized by lifeguards to suit their specific requirements once Pang’s detection model achieves a high level of reliability with minimal false alarms. The goal is to ensure that lifeguards receive alerts only when individuals are at imminent risk in rip current zones. Moreover, the system is designed to differentiate between beachgoers and surfers, optimizing response strategies as needed.

The ultimate objective is to establish a nationwide network of cameras capable of real-time rip current detection. With continuous data collection and consideration of diverse environmental and climatic factors, the accuracy of rip current identification at each location is expected to improve significantly over time.

Another potential advancement on the horizon is the development of a mobile application with similar functionality. Pang envisions a scenario where beach visitors can use their smartphones to record videos of the water, enabling the application to detect and catalog potential rip currents, thereby contributing to a comprehensive data repository for coastal safety.

Despite the advancements in technology, on-ground interventions remain indispensable. The Santa Cruz Fire Department is actively involved in patrolling the Boardwalk-side shore, with Brian Thomas, the Coastal Safety Commander, emphasizing the importance of swift responses to distress calls and the deployment of trained volunteers to assist individuals in peril. This integrated approach, coupled with technological innovations, is poised to enhance coastal safety measures and emergency response protocols.

Health authorities and community stakeholders view this technological innovation as a valuable asset in optimizing resource allocation and enhancing public safety awareness. Santa Cruz Fire Chief Robert Oatey lauds the initiative as a supplementary tool that can bolster surveillance, outreach efforts, and educational campaigns, thereby fostering a culture of safety and preparedness within the community.

While acknowledging the potential benefits of technology in mitigating coastal risks, local surf instructor Che ‘ Jordan underscores the importance of individual awareness and preparedness in recognizing rip currents. Jordan highlights the inherent limitations of technology in the face of nature’s unpredictability, emphasizing the critical role of personal vigilance and caution in coastal environments.

The research team emphasizes that while AI-driven models can provide valuable insights into potential hazards like rip currents, they are not foolproof. The United States Lifesaving Association advocates for a proactive approach to water safety, recommending staying close to a lifeguard and exercising caution regardless of the technological tools available.

In conclusion, the innovative efforts led by Alex Pang and his team at UC Santa Cruz underscore the transformative potential of artificial intelligence in enhancing coastal safety measures. By combining cutting-edge technology with on-ground interventions and community engagement, the initiative aims to create a comprehensive framework for mitigating risks, saving lives, and fostering a culture of safety along the coastline.

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Last modified: November 27, 2023
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