Drones help first responders save lives


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

Within seconds of spotting trouble, first responders used walkie-talkies to notify trained drone pilots to fly one towards the boy. The drone struggled against crosswinds and hovered a few meters above the boy, dropping a self-inflating life jacket. Shortly after the boy put on the vest, a lifeguard arrived on a jet ski to take him back to shore.

The rescue mission relied on technology from General Drones, a Spanish company previewing the summers of the future: one in which sun-kissed lifeguards can use drones to help respond faster to potential drownings.

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

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

“Every second matters,” said Adrián Plazas Agudo, CEO of General Drones and a 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 concept of life preservers originated around 1700, primarily to save people from shipwrecks. A century or so later, as shipwrecks began to decline and recreational swimming increased, the roots of the modern lifeguard emerged: trained lifeguards who patrol pools and beaches, ready to respond.

For years, a lifeguard’s tools have not changed. Rescuers see a person struggling in the water, run out and throw a doughnut-shaped ring buoy at him.

But as technology advanced, so did lifeguard equipment.

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, providing lifeguards with an early warning system. (It is not clear if these systems were ever in common use.)

But lifeguards still face significant problems saving people, said Bernard J. Fisher, director of health and safety for the American Lifesaving Association. The pandemic has halted lifeguard training and a red-hot job market has pushed younger Americans into higher-paying summer jobs, sparking a national lifeguard shortage that has forced fewer people to monitor wider swaths of coastline. In the United States, approximately 3,690 people unintentionally drown each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Lifeguards need to get to people struggling in the water as quickly as possible, Fisher said, and a seconds delay could be the difference between life and death. Using motor boats to get to people quickly is expensive and still takes time, she added, and swimming to a person is a difficult process. Lifeguards on the water depend on colleagues on land to direct them. But if the person struggling in the water is tired, they could quickly submerge or move along the shoreline, making it difficult to be seen.

“It’s hard,” 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 harrowing incident on the beach. He patrolled a stretch of coast with Enrique Fernández, who became a co-founder of his company. They saw a woman beginning to choke and ran to her, but it was too late.

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

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

Ultimately, they created a drone that is about two feet wide and weighs about 22 pounds. Made of carbon fiber and encased in a Go-Pro-type casing, it prevents the beach environment from eroding the mechanical innards. The drone is equipped with a high-resolution camera and carries two folded life jackets that inflate once upon hitting the water.

Currently, 22 beaches in Spain use the technology, Aguro said. It has been used in approximately 40 to 50 rescue incidents in Spain. The drones can reach speeds of up to 50 mph and monitor approximately 3.5 miles of shoreline.

The purchase of the drone, called Auxdron LFG, costs approximately 40,000 euros. Counties that buy the drone also pay $15,000 a month for specialized drone pilots who have been trained by General Drones to execute the challenging task of flying a drone out into the ocean, where the winds are strong, and deploying life jackets on precisely someone. . who is drowning

Several lifeguard officials in the United States said they are excited about drones. At the same time, they noted that the technology is not a replacement for real life jackets and won’t gain widespread adoption until the cost is brought down.

Chris Dembinsky, technology manager for 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, which include the famous Daytona Beach.

Dembinsky said he can’t use his drones for rescue missions at this time. They are too small to drop buoys or help tow people ashore. The life jackets they throw around flap too much in the wind.

Mostly, he said, they are used to help patrol beaches and lakes. They have been particularly useful in finding kayakers lost in backwaters and helping guide them back to land or providing their precise location to public safety officials for rescue efforts.

In the future, Dembinsky would like to add more drones to his arsenal and deploy them on rescue missions, but only if prices come down. His quote only covers smaller $3,000 to $8,000 models, which are more useful for patrolling coastlines. But the ones that save lives can cost tens of thousands of dollars and are out of reach.

“If we had that kind of money,” he said, “we would probably pay our lifeguards more.”

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Tom Gill, chief of the Virginia Beach Lifesaving Service and vice president of the American 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 could spot a drowning person. A drone could then be quickly deployed to drop a life jacket on them. That would allow the person to stay afloat while a lifeguard swims or mounts a personal watercraft to help them return to land.

But he said no matter how advanced the technology, drones can’t replace lifeguards, who can spot unsafe situations as they start.

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

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