Recently, some footage of what was reported to be the first real water rescue made by a drone at Lennox Head, New South Wales, Australia, went viral. There were two swimmers just outside the surf line kind of floating around. The footage was from the drone itself as it dropped this package from maybe 100 feet up.

Upon impact, this big sausage looking thing inflated. Two swimmers swam over to it and floated on it back to shore. At one point it looked like a wave knocked one of them off it, but the guy swam easily back to it and rode it in. The announcer talked about how it was the first rescue by drones.

Drones have been used by lifeguard agencies for quite a while now for surveillance. There are a couple of beaches that I know of that fly them on a set schedule as shark spotters. The operators have to be trained as pilots since they’re a governmental agency. Newport Beach, which is pretty cashed up, flies them three times a week for a 20 minute flight. If they see a shark bigger than a certain size they increase the schedule until it moves out of the area.

There’s actually an Australian company that has gotten into them pretty heavily for mountain rescue that have been working up prototypes on the beach. The one I’ve seen is called the “Little Ripper.” The mountain rescue ones have been shown to be pretty effective in spotting lost hikers and dropping survival packages to them as they wait for help to arrive on foot. But the ocean has been more of a challenge.

Most of the commonly available and affordable drones currently have a flight time of 20 minutes and can’t run in over 20 mph winds. The Little Ripper is apparently a bit better in flight time and can fly in slightly higher winds. It also can be equipped with night vision. But, even so, that’s not much good in search and recovery operations that typically take place during pretty extreme conditions over large areas, requiring much longer flight times.

This “rescue” was the byproduct of a $430,000 government funded program and it was on a test flight by a happy coincidence. It looks like the two swimmers were not actually in distress, but maybe they were tired. They were able to swim to the tube a couple of times. It looks like had they actually been drowning they couldn’t have made forward motion to grab the float.

I think the day will come where there will be drones available that may be able to augment beach lifesaving programs in very real and cost effective ways. Particularly in remote locations or for search and recovery operations. For now they’re a great way to get a camera in the air for short periods of time under the right conditions. It appears for a while longer we’ll be droning on about drones every time something like this goes viral.

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.

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