Apple Watch X could add drowning detection

Detection of irregular movement in water could alert bystanders with SOS message
Apple photo 1
Wareable is reader-powered. If you click through using links on the site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more

Apple is planning a digital lifeguard feature for the Apple Watch, which could send out an SOS for rescue if the wearer encounters problems while swimming.

A new patent filing explains the Apple Watch could consult motion and biometric indicators to detect irregular behavior while the watch is underwater and in swimming mode.

If, for example, the swimmer stops moving or begins flailing their limbs, an SOS message could be sent to various third parties to notify them that help may be required.

Apple Watch X – everything we know so far

The patent filing published in late March and unearthed by Wareable explains how movement-based tracking via stroke and limb coordination detection would indicate whether the swimmer is moving as intended.

“The smartwatch includes a swimming analytics application that can determine limb coordination, swimming style and various other metrics and other information that are good indicators of swimming,” Apple writes. 

AppleApple patent

“In some embodiments, the swimming metrics and other information (e.g., heart rate, blood oxygen levels) are input into a machine learning model that has been trained to classify a swimmer showing regular or irregular behaviour when in the water.”

That irregular behaviour could be determined via Apple’s existing knowledge of the swim strokes it can automatically detect. If the wearer’s “arms are flailing above their head in a manner that is not indicative of swimming stroke” then the Apple Watch will know. GPS could also be used to detect movement and the speed, which is associated with spinning.

Apple’s filing also explains how heart rate and blood oxygen readings would provide additional information, beyond movement, on whether the swimmer may need rescue, for example, due to a heart attack.

“When a swimmer is in distress (e.g., due to a heart attack), the user's underwater behaviour becomes irregular. The irregular behaviour is reflected in the swimming analytics metrics and other information, such as heart rate or other vital signs.”

Furthermore, if a non-swimmer or child heads into the deep end of the pool, the alert could also be triggered,” the parent reads.

Should any of the parameters be hit, a radio frequency message would quickly be conveyed to lifeguards, pool attendants, gym employees, parents, and other bystanders who could assist, or contact emergency services.

Apple says 3,500 people in the United States die from downing each year and while systems like SwimEye use live underwater video feeds combined with object recognition software to notice when swimmers are in trouble, that technology is expensive to install and far from ubiquitous. Swimmers can block the cameras and false positive results are, common.

Apple says this feature could be used in tandem with existing solutions to make them more robust, but also used in places – like lakes – where installing underwater systems isn’t possible.

Apple says “What is needed is a more simple and cost-effective solution to drowning prevention systems that can be deployed in every type of freshwater pool, including public and private swimming pools and also natural pools (e.g., lakes, ponds, etc.) where underwater cameras would be impractical to install.”

It’s worth remembering a large proportion of tech parents are exploratory and not necessarily indicative of plans to bring the feature to market.

However, given the Apple Watch already has the necessary hardware and software algorithms to detect this irregular behavior – the patent doesn’t mention the Depth tool on the Apple Watch Ultra which could help here too – there’s a decent chance Apple may build this feature as another string to the wearable’s lifesaving bow.

TAGGED Apple Watch

How we test

Chris Smith


Chris has more than decade of experience writing for the UK's foremost technology publications including TechRadar, T3 and more.

 A freelance journalist based near Miami, Florida, Chris has written for Wareable since its inception in 2014. From reviews of the latest fitness devices, and in-depth features on bleeding-edge wearable devices, to future-gazing interviews with some of the industry's brightest minds, Chris covers the lot. He also writes about sport for The Guardian and is the author of many technology guide books, while also dabbling in film, music, beer, travel and political commentary.

When he's isn't smashing away at the keys of his MacBook, Chris can be found at his favourite craft breweries, dangling his rod in the warm waters of the Florida Keys, or exploring the Shropshire countryside.

You can follow his on Twitter but beware, it's mostly sporting and political hot takes, occasionally interspersed with tech-based tweets.

Related stories