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How 2 backyard pool drownings prompted Ontario teen to develop life-saving idea

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How 2 backyard pool drownings prompted Ontario teen to develop life-saving idea
WATCH: Evan Budz earned top honours at the 2024 Canada Wide Science Fair for his Virtual Lifeguard imaging system that he hopes will prevent some of the hundreds of drownings across Canada each year – Jun 11, 2024

A Grade 8 student from Burlington, Ont., says the inspiration for his inexpensive monitor to prevent backyard pool drownings was spurred on by a couple of fatal incidents involving young children.

Evan Budz earned top honours at the 2024 Canada Wide Science Fair for his Virtual Lifeguard imaging system that he hopes will prevent some of the hundreds of drownings across Canada each year.

One of the drivers was the death of a three-year-old last year during an Oakville pool party that “hit home,” with Budz having frequented his grandparent’s pool during the summers.

“I really saw that the drowning was a problem in my community, because these two incidents were really kind of close to home for me,” the 13-year-old revealed.

“I wanted to create a device that could be used to solve this problem and possibly prevent similar fatalities from occurring.”

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Meanwhile, Canada has seen the popularity of the backyard pool spike in recent years amid the onset of the pandemic, which restricted pleasure travel.

Statistics Canada says a record 11,168 permits for private pool installations were issued in the second quarter of 2021. In the same quarter a year later, 7,903 permits were issued.

In all, more than 38,000 would be given out that year.

As of 2022, the Canadian Drowning Prevention Coalition estimates the country has around 460 drownings annually, with 99 per cent taking place in settings without lifeguard supervision.

Last June, the National Drowning Prevention Alliance discovered that 88 per cent of children drown with at least one adult present.

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Budz says his virtual lifeguard uses artificial intelligence to distinguish between swimming and drowning and alerts bystanders of the latter to prevent a fatality.

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Audible, visual and email alarms are sent when the device’s cameras, microcomputer and AI software determine a swimmer’s motions are unnatural.

A photo of the Virtual Lifeguard prototype hardware and final package. Provided to Global News / Evan Budz

The aspiring sciences and engineering student, who only starts high school next semester, says the most challenging part of the venture was programming the AI software interpreting the difference between swimming and drowning.

Budz says to date he’s been able to get 98.5-per cent accuracy in detecting between swimming and drowning, a process that “took months” to complete.

“I captured thousands of images of my grandparent’s pool with me and various relatives swimming and drowning,” Budz outlined.

“I then used these images to train an AI model, and then I integrated my AI model onto a physical device that basically consists of a video camera to record the pool.”

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The final prototype has all of the components integrated into a custom case, designed and 3D-printed by Budz.

Youth Science Canada (YSC) executive director Reni Barlow, whose organization ran this year’s fair in Ottawa, says Budz’s entry exemplified their drive to encourage participation in the world of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

“He went through, I think, four or five iterations of the design and really refined it to the point where he was getting 90 to 95 per cent accuracy in terms of recognition,” Barlow explained.

“On top of that, package it in such a way … that this is essentially a prototype product that could be considered for manufacturers.”

Video samples interpreting the differences between swimming and drowning to program AI software within the Virtual Lifeguard prototype. Provided to Global News / Evan Budz

Right now his device only sends email alerts to a parent or pool owner but a future smartphone app with customized alerts is likely.

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“Yeah, that’s definitely something I’m looking at, especially as I transition from a final prototype like I have now into more of a product,” said Budz.

He estimates with the right partnership, the cost of his product could come to about $200 all-in.

The 2024 edition of the YSC fair hosted 387 student finalists from all 13 provinces and territories with over $1.3 million in scholarships, awards and prizes.

Burlington student Evan Budz earned top honors at the 2024 Canada Wide Science Fair for his Virtual Lifeguard project which uses artificial intelligence to distinguish between swimming and drowning. Provided to Global News / Evan Budz

Budz received multiple awards at the YSC for his device, including a platinum award recognizing the best junior innovation project at the fair.

“I also won two special awards, one from the Canadian Artificial Intelligence Association and one from the Blair Family Foundation,” he added.

“As well as a Gold Excellence Award, the Challenge Award in Digital Technology and the Youth Can Innovate Award.”

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He also scored a $4,000 scholarship prize for Western University.

Barlow says finalists are judged on three elements: their creation’s originality, communication skills and, most importantly, scientific thought.

“Each of the finalists on the first day of judging, which contributes the medal results, have four of five half-hour interviews, with the judges. So it’s a pretty rigorous process,” Barlow said.

Budz says the experience was invaluable and expects to stay in the STEM world through high school and in a post-secondary career.

“I want to go to university … in STEM-related fields,” he says.

“Especially as I look towards a career in the sciences or engineering.”

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