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New AI sonar technology is coming to SLO County. Here's how it can help first responders

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Posted at 9:04 PM, May 17, 2023

The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office has a new tool for underwater search and recovery efforts.

Instead of searching an entire body of water, the sheriff’s office dive team will soon be able to use artificial intelligence to pinpoint and lead rescuers to a missing person.

The new hand-held sonar device could cut hours- or days-long search and rescues down to just a half-hour — or even minutes.

“We’re very excited. It’s an amazing piece of equipment,” said Sgt. Kevin Norris of the SLO County Sheriff's Office. “It could make things a lot quicker for use and pinpoint exactly where we need to go.”

VodaSafe is the company behind the cutting-edge technology called AquaEye.

The AI is being used to scan murky water and find a body, officials said. And it functions just like the human eye.

“Just like your brain is processing all the light bouncing off of objects to determine what’s around you, the AI in our system is interpreting what’s in the water by listening to return echoes and using an AI algorithm to say, ‘That’s a person’ and ‘That’s not a person,’” said VodaSafe Sales Director Erik Wolfe.

The SLO County Sheriff’s Office dive team says that the technology can be used to speed up both rescue and recovery missions.

“Depending on how quickly you can be on scene, it can be utilized for rescue,” explained Sgt. Norris. “But it also makes our time much quicker for any type of recovery incidents.”

AquaEye hopes to keep first responders and rescuers safe by cutting down on the amount of time that they spend searching the water.

“When we hear first responders coming to us and saying ‘Hey, I was able to look a family in the eye and bring closure to them' instead of having a mystery go on for days and days — sometimes longer — those are the kinds of things that matter most to us,” said Wolfe.

According to the SLO County Sheriff’s Office, the sonar device will be used predominately at Lake Nacimiento, Lopez Lake and Santa Margarita Lake.

“Our bigger tourist attractions, especially with the summer and the hot months coming, is our lakes,” added Sgt. Norris.

The new technology is expanding across North America and could reshape the way underwater searches are done.

“It’s a dramatic shift," said Wolfe. "If you look at the current state— what most rescue teams do is they get in the water and have to blindly search which is wildly dangerous, hoping they’re going to bump into their target quick enough to either save a life or make a meaningful recovery."

Dive team members will be trained on the new device in the coming weeks to use in time for summer.

Sheriff’s officers traveled to Monterey County this week to receive the device, gifted by Clinica de Salud in the Salinas Valley.

The device has yet to arrive in SLO County, officials said.