Coast Guard seeks ideas for lightweight mass-rescue flotation device

The U.S. government has asked industry groups, inventors and other “innovators” to develop a new type of floating device that can be deployed during mass-rescue events at sea. 

Broadly speaking, the new product should be extremely light and suitable for deployment from aircraft or over the side of a vessel, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate (S&T).

The agency solicited conceptual plans for the new device in June. S&T wants something that can hold at least 100 people, weighs no more than 150 pounds, has a compact design and a shelf life of up to a decade. The product must allow safe egress from the water, have redundant inflation modes, require little or no maintenance and function in very warm and very cold environments. 

Large flotation devices that meet some of these criteria already exist in the commercial market. However, the existing products are typically too heavy to deploy from a Coast Guard helicopter, S&T officials said.

“The desired large-capacity floating device will differ from existing off-the-shelf USCG/SOLAS-compliant ‘life-saving devices’ by its lighter weight, increased portability and limited functionality,” according to the solicitation.

The Coast Guard Research and Development Center (RDC) is assisting with the project and will provide technical assistance to Homeland Security officials considering different designs. 

The service envisions the new device providing immediate assistance to large numbers of people in situations that exceed normal search and rescue capabilities — passenger vessel casualties well offshore where lifeboats are not accessible, for instance. Keeping people out of the water until help arrives is the main objective.

“The Coast Guard wants to develop a non-standard, one-time-use, large-capacity and ultra-lightweight floating device that will be deployed from air or vessel during a mass-rescue operation to mitigate the loss of life,” the service said in a news release.

Concept plans were due in early August. S&T plans to select up to three proposals for grants worth up to $100,000 to develop prototypes and begin testing. From there, one product could be chosen to receive up to $200,000 to build a working model suitable for open-water testing. 

“If successful, the mass life-saving device will give first responders additional capability and capacity to respond quickly to a mass-rescue situation,” said Capt. Dan Keane, RDC commanding officer.

By Professional Mariner Staff