A few years ago, 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. To me it looked staged. 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.
But drones have been used by lifeguard agencies for quite awhile now for surveillance. There are a couple of beaches that I know of that fly the on a set schedule as shark spotters and others that use them for surveillance of isolated or remote areas without guards. 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.
Mountain rescue drones have also been shown to be pretty effective in spotting lost hikers and dropping survival packages to them. The ocean has been more of a challenge. However, one recent local successful example is the Galveston County Community Emergency Response Team used them for a body search at the San Luis Pass and were able to see a few feet beneath the surface and were able to comb a lot of marshland that we had a hard time getting to by water or by land.
Most of the commonly available and affordable drones currently have a flight time of 20 minutes and can’t run in over 20 mile an hour winds. But some of the fancier ones being used by public safety groups are a bit better in-flight time, can fly in slightly higher winds, and can carry a variety of types of cameras including thermal imaging, infra-red, etc. They’re proving to be useful in some conditions for search and recovery operations.
I think the day is near where, if you have the resources, drones 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. I’m hoping, once the Beach Patrol gets into a permanent building “forever home” that we will be able to use drones to fly periodic passes of the shoreline. There is some really cool software out there that is on the verge of being able to consistently identify both rip currents and swimmers in distress. And we can program them to alert us if people are in or near the area by the rock jetties where dangerous rip currents are ever-present.