Drones have become commonplace over the past few years and are being integrated increasingly into public safety. 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 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 with a national lifeguarding association. These drones appear to 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 drowning and, just as they submerge the float 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 already deployed in some beaches for overhead surveillance of remote locations or to add an additional layer of protection. They fly regularly at beaches in California and New England for shark spotting. They’re also used for marketing crowd shots of special events, competitions, or lifeguard training activities. And, although actual rescue is still a little out of reach, search and recovery has improved because of them.
When used for public safety purposes, drones can get a bit expensive and complicated. For example, there is a requirement for a type of pilot’s license and flight planning especially near airports. Fortunately, there are local organizations that have drone programs. Proactive law enforcement agencies, like the Galveston Police Department, have introduced internal drone programs. And we rely more and more on our Galveston Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) to help. This summer CERT responded to a missing drowning victim several times to help search inaccessible wetland areas. It was amazing to see how efficiently they covered tough terrain, and could even see beneath the surface of the water when the light was right.
There is chatter about larger, smarter drones being developed that could use an algorithm to spot people in distress, grab them, and tow them to shore. They even predict that they could initiate CPR and maintain care until first responders arrive. It 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 having serious conversations about how this type of technology could augment lifesaving services around the world.
So, the next time you hear someone “droning on about drones,” it might be worth a listen.