SAR volunteers learn to operate underwater ROV
A dozen search and rescue volunteers from around the Seward Peninsula spent three days in Nome learning to operate the region’s new Defender, a remotely operated vehicle. The underwater drone uses both sonar and video to search and will make the recovery of drowning victims safer for search and rescue teams.
The Defender ROV is manufactured by VideoRay of Pottstown, Pennsylvania and representatives of the company were in Nome to help train the searchers. The ROV itself is a submersible unit about the size of a smallish suitcase. It is tethered to an operator’s console by a cable more than a quarter of a mile long.
“We’re all about being able to use sonar to work in murky water, to be able to track where the vehicle is and also have it fly autonomously, fly a search pattern without too much skill,” said VideoRay Vice President Tom Glebas. “After 9/11 everybody became concerned about security. Port security became a big issue,” he said. “The Coast Guard standardized on our system and that’s what put us on the map.” In addition to both sonar and video the Defender uses GPS for determining location.
VideoRay is worldwide and works in a wide variety of markets. Search and rescue is just one. They also do aquaculture, fish farming, tank inspection, offshore work, and detective type TV shows. “Anytime somebody needs to look underwater this is one of the tools that can be used,” said Glebas.
Tom Crossmon, another representative of the company, also came to help train the volunteers. He is known worldwide in search and recovery of drowning victims and was present during the search of missing White Mountain man Lincoln Simon, who fell through the ice Nov. 5, 2018.
“There are a lot of drowning victims that go unrecovered because the local agency doesn’t own the technology capable of going after them,” said Crossmon.
Crossmon’s father was in search and rescue in Minnesota and Crossman started accompanying his father on drowning recoveries when he was 12-years-old. “I’ve been doing it for just over 40 years,” he said. Minnesota has much in common with Alaska in that there is a lot of water, there is a lot of ice for much of the year and people fall through the ice.
“It’s always concerned me that we were risking human life after lost life,” said Crossmon. “Why are we putting humans back in the water when we’ve already had somebody drown there? So if we could do it safer why would we not do that? So, in 2002 a friend of mine found VideoRay and the technology they have and at that time it wasn’t used for body recovery. We were the first people in the world to use it for drowning victim recovery in 2004.”
Crossmon likes to work with the sonar sensor on the ROV. It is multi-beamed and looks forward at 20 degree by 130 degree view. The beam refreshes so quickly that you can watch a fish swim by. “That’s what we use more than anything and that helps guide us in black water to a target,” said Crossman. “Then when we get close we can see it on the video screen. If it’s a drowning victim we can grab ahold of it with the manipulator on the ROV and bring the body to the surface.”
All of the software is in the box controlled by the human operator.
When Lincoln Simon of White Mountain went through the ice last November, a difficult search followed. The 63-year-old man had been tomcod fishing when his four-wheeler broke through the ice. He was able to call his family and give them his location. The conditions were considered to be too dangerous to send search and rescue from White Mountain so Golovin Search and Rescue launched an airboat and Senator Donnie Olson assisted the search flying his helicopter. No sign of either Simon nor the four-wheeler was found, only a hat and a glove. The search was suspended during the winter months. Simon’s body was recovered on May 16.
During the extended search, Crossmon brought a Defender and VideoRay also brought one. The search stretched out over a month with the ROVs working under the ice. “And as a result of that search Dan Harrelson of White Mountain and Dean Peterson of Golovin got together during and afterwards and said ‘This would be a fantastic asset for the region. We should get one for here,’” said Austen Erickson, NSEDC’s safety manager. “So the board asked me to look into it, price it out, do a feasibility study. We brought our info back to the board and they said ‘Let’s get the Defender, bring it home to the region and make it available to all the communities.’”
The eleven volunteers —one of the 12 selected for training was unable to attend —were upbeat about their skills with the new tool. Because of their extensive experience in search and rescue, the capabilities of the ROV were understood right away. “I think it went really well,” said Crossmon. “If there was an incident in the Nome area they’d perform very well.”
The volunteers selected for the training were Clyde Oxereok, Sebastian Mike, Anthony Haugen Sr., Walter Ozenna, Henry Titus Sr., Roger Nassuk Jr., Dwight Amaktoolik, George Lewis, Kevin Bahnke, Paul Kosto Shane Smithhisler, and Richard Verbridge.