Emily B Drifter Project awarded Surf Life Saving New Zealand Innovation of The Year

Tuesday, 28 September 2021

Media release

28 September 2021

Emily B Drifter Project awarded Surf Life Saving New Zealand Innovation of The Year

Surf Life Saving New Zealand (SLSNZ) celebrates the dedicated surf lifeguards and club members across the country with the 2021 National Awards of Excellence. This year, the prestigious DHL Innovation of the Year Award goes to the Emily B Drifter project, developed by members of the Kotuku Surf Life Saving Club (SLSC).

Emily Branje was just nine-years-old on September 26, 2019, when she was tragically swept out to sea by a rogue wave while she sat eight metres up the beach and watched her grandfather fishing off the banks of the Hokitika River Mouth. This event prompted Emily’s parents, Patrick and Janine, to coordinate with Kotoku SLSC member Paul Lambert on a potentially lifesaving concept previously in concept development.

“If the Emily B Drifter can help us find a person much faster, place search resources in the right areas and use those resources more efficiently, it’s a no-brainer,” says Paul Lambert.

The project uses a drifter system with live GPS tracking to identify the probable location of a person missing in the water. The recording of real-time drift patterns and the speed of currents assists in search and rescue operations. The Emily B Drifters can be set either at the surface for a missing person with a lifejacket or below the surface for a missing person without a lifejacket. However, getting the project off the ground was difficult. Paul Lambert said after an initial period to determine cost, they struggled to secure funding.

Following Emily's death, a Givealittle page was set up for the family. Janine and Patrick agreed to use some of the funds donated to them to give back to those who donated their time in searching for Emily to bring her home. Janine, on behalf of the family, approached Kotuku SLSC to discuss possible initiatives they could support. Paul Lambert mentioned the drifter system he’d been working on. As Emily was a bright girl interested in technology, the project seemed like a perfect fit and Janine decided to give it their backing along with the donation of a laptop and materials. They knew this would be a fitting way to remember Emily whilst helping others. Patrick is a mechanical engineer having a skilled background in design and fabrication. He assisted with the development and production of the drifter prototypes, suggesting enhancements to the initial concept. The current drifter design has now undergone some initial rounds of successful trial testing. 

During the development process, Paul contacted numerous national and international companies to gather information for the Emily B Drifter design. These discussions resulted in the generous donation from TracPlus of four GPS units, five years of satellite fees, four waterproof cases and four external power supplies that increase the drifter operation time from 24 hours to four-five days. Additionally, multi-agency partnerships within New Zealand have been fostered, seeing Kotuku SLSC work alongside the Police, Fire & Emergency New Zealand, New Zealand Coastguard, Civil Defence, Land SAR West Coast ROA Mining Rescue Helicopter and more. Paul would like to thank all groups that have contributed to the project, especially the Branje family, TracPlus, Rock Seven, The Lion Foundation and Freemasons. 

The project continues to progress with potential involvement from Auckland & Canterbury Universities and ROA Mining Rescue & Highland Helicopters. Paul is keen to see the Emily B Drifter benefit agencies across New Zealand and overseas; “I just believe it should be shared out there.” He also hopes an application can be developed, allowing data from a specific location to determine the speed and direction of a person or object travelling in the water.

Left to right: Patrick and Janine Branje, with Kotuku SLSC Chairman Mark Bolland

Janine also reiterates how important the future project is, not because it is now named in honour of their only child Emily, but because “We know first-hand how hard waiting is, will they ever be found. Sadly, these deaths will continue, as a country we are surrounded by ocean everywhere. However, to be able to reduce that waiting time, and bring someone home to their loved ones, or even better find them before it’s too late, would make this project even more worthwhile.” Janine hopes to see this project roll out further in time around New Zealand, and when the time is right will assist Paul, Kotuku SLSC and anyone else involved in making this happen.

Finally, Janine concludes, “As Emily’s parents and family, we are thrilled to see this innovation pick up a National Award as we near her two-year anniversary, while we don’t have Emily here, we hope some good can come of a terrible tragedy.”

SLSNZ actively promotes preventative action to ensure water safety, highlighting the importance of wearing a lifejacket and keeping young children within reach around water. The Emily B Drifter will become an invaluable addition to these measures, helping prevent fatalities and return missing persons to their loved ones as fast as possible. A truly note-worthy innovation, the Emily B Drifter has the potential to benefit search and rescue operations across New Zealand and even internationally.