We put the U SAFE water rescue drone through a product review in the whitewater at Vector Wero, Auckland.
Dr. Steve Glassey, Director, Public Safety Institute, New Zealand
Overall Rating: ★★★
The U Safe is a Portuguese self-propelled remote-controlled U-shaped lifebuoy. Reviews to date have focused on flat water and in surf, so we used the opportunity to see how it performed in swiftwater (Class III+).
– >800m navigable range (optimal is line of sight)
– 5.9 km (3.2 nM) range
– 13.7 kg (30.14 lb) weight
– 15 kmph (8 knots)
– 960 x 780 x 255mm dimensions
Ease of Use
Operating the remote control is straightforward: forward (and speed), left, right. Individuals familiar with gaming consoles or drones will quickly adapt to the device. Notably, if the buoy flips over, it automatically signals resetting it’s orientation with the controller through its patented “Flip and Move” feature. Turn it on, toss it into the water, and start using the controller—it’s that simple.
The U Safe is user-friendly and performs exceptionally well on flat water, allowing operation as far as the eye can see. It demonstrated the power to retrieve both a victim and a rescuer (manikin) without significant difficulty. We even had it tow a small inflatable sled and carry a rope across the water. In calm waters, it met expectations without any surprises.
However, the real test was in swiftwater conditions, an area where the device’s performance remained uncertain. While there were numerous videos showcasing its use in flat water and maritime environments with oscillating currents, swiftwater presents unique challenges. To evaluate its capabilities, we took it into Class III+ rapids at the Vector Wero whitewater park in Auckland.
In our first scenario, using the device unmanned under remote control, it navigated through Class III rapids while enduring waves and frequent flips. Thanks to buoy’s “Flip and Move” auto-correct feature, we could easily continue operating despite the flips. What became evident was that the operator needed to master using water currents to their advantage, employing ferry angles, and understanding hydrology, all of which amplified the device’s effectiveness. We successfully used it to carry an 8mm water rescue line across the channel.
In more challenging flow conditions, it performed well but couldn’t navigate up drops, a feat that even competent kayakers or rafters might struggle with. While we attempted a run-up, our limited experience might have been a limiting factor. To assess its suitability for retrieving a victim with minimal water experience from the other side, we placed a swiftwater rescue technician on the device, with another operator on shore controlling it. Together, they worked effectively, with the in-water technician providing kick propulsion and adjusting their body position, while the shore-based operator transmitted additional propulsion through the electric motors. However, in isolation, both had their challenges, highlighting the device’s potential when used in combination.
One notable shortcoming was a lag in the remote control, which, while not critical in static water, posed challenges in swiftwater, especially as the device moved around in eddies. A few seconds of delay could mean the difference between being pulled into the flow or missing the ideal timing for a turn. We ran aground several times, and a reverse option would have been beneficial instead of relying on a surge of current to recover the device. The cause of the lag, whether due to aerated water affecting the controller signal or other factors, was unclear.
If intended for swiftwater use, it would be more effective in the hands of an experienced swiftwater technician. Future versions should consider incorporating controls on the device’s handles for local activation while maintaining remote control. Additional power, achievable with next-generation batteries and motors, could make it a more viable option for swiftwater rescues against powerful currents.
The device’s weight (13.7 Kg) allows for easy carrying and operation by a single person. It performs exceptionally well in static water environments, making it ideal for lakes, ponds, pools, and calm rivers or slack floodwater. It might also be a valuable tool for air rescue operators focusing on winching swimmers into the water. Offshore platforms could benefit from its quick deployment compared to an IRB crew.
The U Safe’s intakes and internal battery are reasonably easy to remove and service as needed, although the most common requirement is simply recharging the battery through an induction charger, requiring no tools. The distributor network was responsive and provided good customer service. The device includes a two-year warranty.
Value for Money
The device is priced at approximately USD$10,000. Whether it provides good value for money depends on how you intend to use it. For the same price, one could purchase an IRB with a motor capable of rescuing multiple victims simultaneously. Therefore, its value is subjective and contingent on your specific needs and use case.
The regulatory status of the U Safe remains unclear in various countries. In the context of New Zealand, it’s uncertain whether the U Safe falls under the definition of a commercial vessel, given its motorization and use for transporting people. Users should seek their own legal advice regarding any regulatory requirements that may apply. Obtaining exemptions or approval for its use may be necessary.
– Single-person carry and operation
– Operator remains out of the water during rescues
– Low training requirements (minimal)
– Robust and capable of withstanding impacts
– Highly buoyant
– Auto-correcting controller for flipped device
– Potential to use it to take rope/loop out to and around mid-stream obstacle to provide access
– Potential to use it to deploy single sided pendulum line (i.e. hold station mid-stream with line going back to shore)
– Able to take PPE to victims
– Unproven performance in real swiftwater conditions
– Remote controller lag
– Insufficient power for swiftwater rescues involving victims and/or rescuers
– Unclear regulatory framework for use
– No reverse function
The U Safe is an excellent water safety product for flat water environments. While we lack expertise in surf conditions to evaluate its performance in such an environment, it holds promise for swiftwater scenarios. However, further testing, including comparisons with similar products like the OceanAlpha Dolphin1, is necessary. In my preliminary assessment, a next-generation device with increased power could be the game-changer needed for swiftwater rescues. In the meantime, it’s a valuable addition to the toolbox, though legal considerations should be taken into account.
Acknowledgements: The authors would like to express their gratitude to Vector Wero, Auckland International Airport (Airport Emergency Service) and Fire & Rescue Safety New Zealand for their invaluable support during this review. This text is based on an article from the February 2024 issue of TECHNICAL RESCUE magazine.