Drones help rescuers save lives


When a 14-year-old boy was in danger of drowning off the Spanish coast of Valencia last month, help came in an unusual form: a drone.

Within seconds of spotting problemsrescuers used walkie-talkies to notify trained drone pilots to fly one next to the child. The drone fought the crosswind and hovered a few feet above the boy, automatically dropping the inflatable life jacket. Shortly after the child put on the vest, a lifeguard arrived in a personal watercraft to bring him back to shore.

The rescue mission relied on technology from General Drones, a Spanish company that offers a summer preview of the future: one in which sun-drenched lifeguards can use drones to help respond more quickly to potential drownings.

The technology has gained popularity in Spain, where it is used on nearly two dozen beaches. In other countries, including the United States, rescuers are also using drones as an extra set of eyes.

Lifesaving drones provide a crucial benefit, rescuers and company officials say, especially when time is of the essence.

“Every second counts,” said Adrian Plazas Agudo, CEO of General Drones and a former lifeguard. “Our first response is in about five seconds. . . . It’s very important to get the time down.”

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In the United States, the concept of salvage originated around 1700, mostly to save people from shipwrecks. About a century later, as shipwrecks began to decline and recreational swimming grew, the roots of modern lifesaving emerged: trained lifeguards patrolling pools and beaches ready to respond.

A rescuer’s tools haven’t changed in years. Lifeguards spot a man struggling in the water, rush out and throw him a donut-shaped ring buoy.

But as advanced technology, so is the equipment of the rescuers.

Lifeguards began using personal watercraft and inflatable rafts around the 1980s to quickly reach people in distress on the beach. In the 2000s, companies created software to visually detect struggling swimmers in pools, giving lifeguards an early warning system. (It is unclear whether these systems were ever used.)

But rescuers still face serious problems rescuing people, said Bernard J. Fisher, director of health and safety for the American Lifeguard Association. The pandemic has halted lifeguard training, and a red-hot job market has pushed younger Americans to higher-paying summer gigs, prompting a national lifeguard shortage that has forced fewer people to watch over wider swaths of shore. In the United States, approximately 3,690 people drown unintentionally each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Rescuers need to get to people struggling in the water as quickly as possible, Fisher said, and a delay of seconds can be the difference between life and death. Using speedboats to reach people is expensive and still time-consuming, he added, and swimming to a person is a difficult process. Lifeguards in the water rely on colleagues on land to guide them. But if the person fighting in the water is tired, he can go under the water or move along the shoreline quickly, making him difficult to be noticed.

“It’s hard,” he said.

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Agudo, who spent years as a lifeguard in Valencia and is an industrial engineer, started General Drones in 2015 after a harrowing accident on the beach. He patrolled the coastline along with Enrique Fernandez, who became a co-founder of his company. They saw a woman starting to drown and rushed to her but were too late.

“I saw the woman drown in front of me,” he said. “That was the tipping point.”

Agudo and Fernández then partnered with engineers from the Polytechnic University of Valencia to create a drone that could reach people faster than the fastest swimmer or jet ski and potentially save lives. They realized that the beach was a harsh environment and needed a drone that could withstand water, sand and wind.

They ended up creating a drone that is about two feet wide and weighs about 22 pounds. Crafted from carbon fiber and encased in a Go-Pro-like housing, it protects the beach environment from eroding its mechanical innards. The drone is equipped with a high-definition camera and carries two folded life jackets that inflate once it touches water.

Currently, 22 beaches in Spain use the technology, Aguro said. It has been used in approximately 40 to 50 life-saving incidents in Spain. The drones can reach speeds of up to 50 miles per hour and monitor approximately 3.5 miles of shore.

The drone, called the Auxdron LFG, costs around €40,000 to purchase. The counties that buy the drone also pay €12,000 a month for specialist drone pilots who are trained by General Drones to carry out the challenging task of flying a drone in the ocean where winds are strong and placing life jackets directly above someone who is drowning.

A number of lifeguards in the United States said they were excited about the drones. At the same time, they noted that the technology is not a substitute for actual lifesavers and won’t gain widespread use until the price comes down.

Chris Dembinski, technology manager for the Volusia County Beach Safety Department in Florida, said he has four small drones in his arsenal to patrol the lakes and beaches in his jurisdiction, which includes the famous Daytona Beach.

Dembinski said he can’t currently use his drones for life-saving missions. They are too small to drop buoys or help pull people ashore. The life jackets they drop are blowing around too much in the wind.

Mostly, he said, they are used to help patrol beaches and lake shores. They have been especially helpful in finding kayakers lost in shallow waters and helping guide them back to shore or providing their exact location to public safety officials for rescue efforts.

In the future, Dembinski would like to add more drones to his arsenal and use them in life-saving missions, but only if prices drop. His budget only covers smaller $3,000 to $8,000 models that are more useful for coastal patrol. But lifesavers can cost tens of thousands of dollars and are out of reach.

“If we had that much money,” he said, “we’d probably pay our lifeguards more.”

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Tom Gill, chief of the Virginia Beach Lifeguard Service and vice president of the United States Lifesaving Association, agreed that drones would be useful for lifeguards to patrol shorelines and assist in lifesaving missions.

At best, he said, lifeguards or a drone can spot a drowning person. A drone can then be quickly deployed to drop them a life jacket. This will allow the person to stay afloat while a lifeguard swims or rides in a personal watercraft to help the person back to shore.

But he said as much as technology advances, drones cannot replace rescuers who can spot dangerous situations early on.

“It might be nice for that drone to go there and maybe they’ll get there faster than the lifeguard,” he said. “But many times the rescuer has already prevented this from happening in the first place.”

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