Drones help lifeguards save lives

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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 trouble, lifeguards used walkie-talkies to notify trained drone pilots to fly one over to the child. Battling crosswinds, the drone hovered a few meters above the boy, dropping an automatically inflating life jacket. Shortly after the child put on 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 offering a taste of future summers: one where sun-kissed lifeguards can use drones to respond more quickly to potential drowning deaths.

The technology has gained traction 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 set of eyes.

Lifesaving drones provide a crucial advantage, 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 response is in about five seconds … It’s very important to reduce the time.”

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In the United States, the concept of lifesaving arose around the 18th century, mostly to save people from shipwrecks. About a century later, as shipwrecks began to decrease and recreational swimming increased, the roots of modern lifeguarding emerged: trained lifeguards patrol pools and beaches, ready to respond.

For years, a lifeguard’s tools have not changed. Rescuers spot a person struggling in the water, rush out and throw them with a ring buoy.

But as technology evolved, so did lifeguard equipment.

Lifeguards began using jet skis and inflatable rafts around the 1980s to quickly reach people in danger on the beach. In the 2000s, companies created software to visually detect swimmers struggling in pools, giving lifeguards an early warning system. (It is unclear whether these systems were ever widely 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 halted lifeguard training and the red-hot job market drove younger Americans to higher-paying summer gigs, triggering a national lifeguard shortage that has forced fewer people to patrol wider stretches of coastline. In the United States, about 3,690 people drown unintentionally each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Lifeguards must 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 motorboats to rush out to people is expensive and still takes time, he added, and swimming to a person is a difficult process. The lifeguards in the water depend on colleagues on land to direct them. However, if the person fighting in the water is tired, they may go underwater or move quickly along the shoreline, making it difficult to be detected.

“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 incident on the beach. He patrolled a stretch of coast with Enrique Fernández, who became his company’s co-founder. They saw a woman start to drown and rushed out to her – but they were too late.

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

Then Agudo and Fernández teamed up with engineers at 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 harsh environment and needed a drone that could withstand water, sand and wind.

In the end, they created a drone that is about two feet wide and weighs about 22 pounds. Made from carbon fiber and wrapped in a Go-Pro-like housing, it prevents the beach environment from eroding the mechanical interior. The drone is equipped with a high-resolution camera and carries two folded life jackets that inflate once when it touches the water.

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

The drone, called Auxdron LFG, costs around 40,000 euros to buy. Counties that buy the drone also pay 12,000 euros a month for specialized drone pilots who have been trained by General Drones to carry out the challenging task of flying a drone into the sea where the wind is strong and placing life jackets precisely over someone who is drowning .

A number of lifeguard officials in the United States said they are enthusiastic about drones. At the same time, they noted that the technology is not a substitute for actual lifeguards and will not become widespread until costs come down.

Chris Dembinsky, the chief technology officer for Florida’s Volusia County beach safety department, said he has four small drones in his arsenal to patrol the lakes and beaches in his jurisdiction, which includes famed Daytona Beach.

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

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

In the future, Dembinsky would like to add more drones to his arsenal and deploy them in life-saving missions, but only if prices come down. His budget only covers smaller $3,000 to $8,000 models, which are more useful for patrolling shores. But the life preservers can cost tens of thousands of dollars and are out of reach.

“If we had that amount,” 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 shores and assist in lifesaving missions.

In a best-case scenario, he said, lifeguards or a drone could spot a drowning person. Then a drone could be quickly deployed to drop a life jacket to them. That would allow the person to stay afloat while a lifeguard swims or jet skis over to help the person get back to shore.

But he said that no matter how advanced the technology becomes, drones cannot replace lifeguards who can detect unsafe situations when they begin.

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

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