Rescue by robot: A swimming pool in Germany uses AI to prevent drowning


Shahabeddin wears a smartwatch in the Kleinfeldchen indoor pool that shows him how many people are currently swimming in the sports pool.

WHEN people drown, there is rarely a lot of splashing and screaming, despite what films show. It is not always easy to tell when someone runs into serious trouble in the water.

One German swimming pool is testing a monitoring system using artificial intelligence (AI) to try and save swimmers’ lives.

There are indoor and outdoor pools at the western city of Wiesbaden’s Kleinfeldchen swimming baths. One indoor pool has started using the new system in August 2020.

Invented by an Israeli start-up, the AI mechanism has four cameras forming a monitor attached to the ceiling above the indoor pool, that measures 25x15m.

”The cameras detect movements in the water and record a movement profile that is analysed using AI,” says Thomas Baum, operations manager at Mattiaqua, the regional pool operator.

If the patterns are not deemed to be normal, the system alerts the staff at the pool, notifying them through their smartwatches. The watch emits a loud beep and vibrates, says Shahabeddin Khatibi, a pool attendant who has been working with the system since its outset.

The watch display also shows a red dot to indicate the exact position of the person in trouble, along with three pictures.

Pool attendant Shahabeddin stands under an AI camera in the Kleinfeldchen indoor pool.Pool attendant Shahabeddin stands under an AI camera in the Kleinfeldchen indoor pool.

False alarms

At the start, there were several false alarms when swimmers did a roll turn, for example. ”Over time, the AI has learned which movements are normal for swimmers and when a person is having problems,” says Shahabeddin, who reports back to the system after each alarm, to help it learn whether it assessed the situation correctly.

After the end of the test and learning phase, Baum now wants to use the system in other pools and baths in Wiesbaden. “In the next step, we want to equip the non-swimmers’ area and the outdoor pools. Next year, the thermal pool will follow,” says Baum.

The costs vary depending on the size of the pool and the number of cameras, but for the current pool, the cost is around $32,000 (RM148,000) to $42,000 per year, says Baum.

The AI isn’t aiming to replace staff or water rescue services, but it helps as a safeguard for staff and swimmers alike.

”If it works only once in ten years and saves a person’s life, then every cent invested was worth it,” says Baum.

Swimming supervision also benefits from the operation. “The system is our third eye. Especially when there are 4,000 to 6,000 guests in the pool at once in summer, it helps us a lot to keep an overview,” says Shahabeddin, who is a swimming supervisor.

Alongside spotting people in danger of drowning, the technology can also detect and sound an alarm if small children get separated from their parents while swimming.

The AI system also analyses how many people are in the pool at any one time and shows the number of swimmers in the water on the smartwatch.

Those concerned about data protection, meanwhile need not worry as the cameras only recognise peoples’ outlines.

”It’s not about monitoring people, but about the safety of the bathers,” says Baum.

In addition to the system used in Wiesbaden, manufacturers also offer AI systems with cameras in the pools. ”This kind of technology cannot replace the staff in the swimming pool, but it can certainly be a valuable addition to support them and thus also to save lives,” says a spokesperson for the German Life Saving Association (DLRG).

Staff cannot see all bathers at once, especially in large and deep pools or on a busy day, the spokesperson says. Since drowning often occurs silently, the AI can help to draw attention to a person faster.

Meanwhile the nearby city of Darmstadt also plans to buy an AI system in the Nordbad in the course of the year, a spokesperson says.

Shahabeddin wears a smartwatch in the Kleinfeldchen indoor pool that shows him how many people are currently swimming in the sports pool.Shahabeddin wears a smartwatch in the Kleinfeldchen indoor pool that shows him how many people are currently swimming in the sports pool.

Not convinced

However, not all nearby pools are convinced. In Fulda, also in Hesse, no such systems are yet in use at the city’s three municipal outdoor and indoor swimming pools, operator RhönEnergie Fulda told dpa.

Stadtwerke Gießen, the operator of three swimming pools, also does not use an AI-based system for pool monitoring in its pools and does not yet plan to do so, says a spokesperson.

The same applies to the four municipal pools in Kassel. “From our point of view, the safety standard of the previous systems is not yet mature enough for us to rely on them,” says a spokesperson for Städtische Werke Kassel. In order to guarantee safety in the pools, they rely on trained staff, he adds.

AI is not yet being used in the Taunus Therme in Bad Homburg either. ”Since we are a relatively manageable thermal bath with a pool depth of 1.35m, this would definitely make sense. However, the costs are currently disproportionate,” a spokeswoman says, adding that for now, the spa is “far away” from taking such a step. – dpa/Jana Klose

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