Drones help lifeguards save lives


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

Seconds after spotting problems, lifeguards used walkie-talkies to alert drone pilots trained to fly one towards the child. The drone battled crosswinds and hovered a few meters above the boy, dropping a self-inflating life jacket. Shortly after the child donned the vest, a lifeguard arrived on a jet ski to bring him back to shore.

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

The technology has caught on in Spain, where it is used on nearly two dozen beaches. In other countries, including the United States, lifeguards also use drones as an extra pair of eyes.

Life-saving drones provide a crucial advantage, lifeguards and company officials say, especially when time is of the essence.

“Every second counts,” said Adrián Plazas Agudo, CEO of General Drones and former lifeguard. “Our first answer is in about five seconds … It is very important to reduce the time.”

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

For years, a lifeguard’s tools haven’t changed. Rescuers spot a person struggling in the water, rush out and throw a donut-shaped ring buoy at them.

But as technology advances, so does the lifeguard equipment.

Lifeguards began using jet skis and inflatable rafts around the 1980s to quickly reach people in distress on the beach. In the 2000s, companies created software to visually detect troubled swimmers in pools, providing lifeguards with an early warning system (it’s unclear whether these systems were ever commonly used).

But lifeguards still face significant problems saving people, said Bernard J. Fisher, director of health and safety for the American Lifeguard Association. The pandemic disrupted lifeguard training and the scorching job market drove young Americans to higher-paying summer concerts, triggering a shortage of national lifeguards that forced fewer people to monitor wider areas of the coast. In the United States, about 3,690 people involuntarily drown per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Lifeguards need to get to wrestling people in the water as quickly as possible, Fisher said, and a delay of just a few seconds could mean the difference between life and death. Using speedboats to run to people is expensive and still takes time, she added, and swimming for one person is a difficult process. Lifeguards in the water rely on colleagues ashore to direct them. But if the person struggling in the water is tired, she may go underwater or move quickly along the coast, making it difficult to be spotted.

“It’s difficult,” he said.

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Agudo, who spent years as a lifeguard in Valencia and is an industrial engineer, founded General Drones in 2015 after a heartbreaking accident on the beach. He was patrolling a stretch of coast with Enrique Fernández, who became the co-founder of his he company. They saw a drowning woman and ran towards her, but they were too late.

“I could see how the woman drowned in front of me,” he said. “It was the breaking point.”

Subsequently, Agudo and Fernández collaborated 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 the beach was a hostile environment and needed a drone that could withstand water, sand and wind.

Eventually, they created a drone about two feet wide and weighing about 22 pounds. Made of carbon fiber and wrapped in a Go-Pro-like casing, it prevents the beach environment from eroding the mechanical bowels. The drone is equipped with a high-resolution camera and carries two folded life jackets that inflate once upon contact with water.

Currently, 22 beaches in Spain use the technology, Aguro said. It has been used in around 40-50 life-saving accidents in Spain. The drones can reach speeds of up to 50 mph and track approximately 3.5 miles of shoreline.

The drone, called Auxdron LFG, costs around 40,000 euros to purchase. The counties that buy the drone also shell out 15,000 euros a month for specialized drone pilots who have been trained by General Drones to perform the challenging task of flying a drone in the ocean, where the winds are strong, and to deploy safety vests. rescue right above someone who is drowning.

A number of lifeguard officials in the United States said they were thrilled with the drones. At the same time, they noted that the technology does not replace royal lifeguards and will not be adopted on a large scale until the cost comes down.

Chris Dembinsky, the chief technology officer of Florida’s Volusia County Beach Safety Division, said he has four small drones in his arsenal to patrol the lakes and beaches in his jurisdiction, including the famous Daytona Beach.

Dembinsky said he cannot use his drones for life-saving missions right now. They are too small to drop buoys or help tow people ashore. The life jackets they drop flap too much in the wind.

Mostly, he said, they are used to patrol beaches and lakeside promenades. They have been particularly helpful in finding the lost kayakers in the ponds and helping them to bring them back to shore or in providing their precise location to law enforcement officials for rescue.

In the future, Dembinsky would like to add more drones to his arsenal and field them on lifesaving missions, but only if prices drop. His budget only covers smaller models from $ 3,000 to $ 8,000, which are more useful for coast patrolling. But life-saving ones can cost tens of thousands of dollars and are out of reach.

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

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

At best, he said, lifeguards or a drone could spot a drowning person. So a drone could quickly be deployed to drop a life jacket on them. This would allow the person to stay afloat while a lifeguard swims or drives a jet ski to help the person get back to shore.

But he said that no matter how advanced the technology is, drones cannot replace lifeguards, who can spot dangerous situations early on.

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