Drones are a hot topic right now in a lot of areas, but the international lifesaving community is becoming more and more interested in them as we look to see the newest developments. It is, however, hard to separate fact from fiction in a world where a YouTube video can go viral and become “fact” simply because there are so many people that see it and it takes on a sort of critical mass.

Over the past few years there have been a number of internet hoaxes related to lifesaving and drones. Usually, the story is that a drone manufacturing company is testing a drone in an area working with the national lifeguard program. These drones reportedly can drop some type of floatation device, such as an inflatable ring buoy to a person in distress in the water. In the videos a person is in the process of drowning and just as they submerge the flat falls magically within their reach. Then, even more magically, the person has the presence of mind to swim a couple of strokes and grab the buoy.

Through the work I do with the International Lifesaving Federation, some of these stories come across my desk to look into. So far, when I’ve followed up with the national lifesaving groups in Brazil or Venezuela or wherever else, they’ve turned out to be clever marketing ploys with no basis. But that may change soon.

Drones are being used already in some beaches for overhead surveillance. They fly regularly at a couple of beaches in California for shark spotting. They’re used for marketing crowd shots of special events, competitions, or lifeguard training activities. But actual rescue or search and rescue activities appear to still be a little out of reach. The drones that are within the range of most lifeguard programs budgets typically have a flight time of 20 to 30 minutes, can’t carry much payload, and don’t operate in winds over 20 miles per hour. My guess is that when the cost goes down a bit and agencies can get their hands on drones that have an hour or more flight time in rougher conditions this may change and they’ll be helpful when looking for missing people.

There is chatter about larger, smarter drones being developed that could use an algorithm to spot people in distress, then grab them and tow them to shore. Even that they could initiate CPR and maintain until first responders arrive. Still seems a bit like science fiction, but we’re probably not too far away from some real developments. Real enough that the International Lifesaving Federation is starting the conversation about how this type of technology could augment some of the more progressive and resource rich lifesaving services around the world. Even now, larger drones that look like mini airplanes are being used for mountain rescue and are able to drop survival packages to people. In places like Australia they are being used as a way to keep an eye on remote beach locations that lifeguards don’t regularly cover.

Peter Davis is chief of the Galveston Island Beach Patrol. The views in this column are Davis’ and do not necessarily represent those of the beach patrol, Galveston Park Board of Trustees or any other entity.

(1) comment

Ronald Paget

Thank you Peter for keeping us informed!!!

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