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Drones help lifeguards save lives

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

Within seconds of spotting problems, lifeguards deployed walkie-talkies to notify them trained drone pilots to fly one to the child. Battling a crosswind, the drone hovered a few feet above the boy, dropping an auto-inflating life jacket. Shortly after the child put on the vest, a lifeguard came in a watercraft to bring him back to shore.

The rescue mission relied on technology from General Drones, a Spanish company that offers a glimpse of the summers of the future: a summer when sun-kissed lifeguards can use drones to respond more quickly to possible drownings.

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

Lifesaving drones offer a distinct advantage, lifeguards and business 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 response will be in about five seconds… It’s very important to cut the time.”

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In the United States, the concept of lifeguards originated around the 17th century, primarily to save people from shipwrecks. Roughly a century later, as shipwrecks began to dwindle and recreational swimming increased, the roots of the modern lifeguard emerged: trained lifeguards patrolling pools and beaches, ready to respond.

A lifeguard’s tools have not changed in years. Rescuers spot a person struggling in the water, rush out and toss him a donut-shaped ring buoy.

But as technology progressed, so did lifeguard equipment.

Lifeguards began using watercraft and inflatable boats in the 1980s to quickly reach vulnerable individuals on the beach. In the 2000s, companies developed software to visually detect swimming difficulties in pools and offered lifeguards an early warning system. (It is unclear whether these systems were ever in general use.)

However, lifeguards still face significant problems rescuing 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 pushed younger Americans into higher-paying summer gigs, sparking a national lifeguard shortage that forced fewer people to patrol larger stretches of coastline. About 3,690 people accidentally drown in the United States 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 mean the difference between life and death. Using motor boats to rush to people is costly and still takes time, he added, and swimming to a person is a difficult process. The lifeguards in the water are dependent on their colleagues on land. But if the person struggling in the water is tired, they could go underwater or move quickly along the shore, making it difficult to be detected.

“It’s difficult,” he said.

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Agudo, who spent many 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 alongside Enrique Fernández, who became a co-founder of his company. They saw a woman begin to drown and rushed to her – but they were too late.

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

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

Ultimately, they created a drone that’s about two feet wide and weighs about 22 pounds. Crafted from carbon fiber and encased in a Go-Pro-like body, it prevents the beach environment from eroding the mechanical innards. The drone is equipped with a high-resolution camera and wears two folded life jackets that inflate on contact with water.

Currently, 22 beaches in Spain are using 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 80 km/h and monitor approximately 3.5 miles of coastline.

The drone called Auxdron LFG costs around 40,000 euros to purchase. Districts that buy the drone also pay 12,000 euros per month for specialized drone pilots who have been trained by General Drones to complete the challenging task of flying a drone into the sea where strong winds are blowing and deploying life jackets precisely over someone who he drinks.

A number of lifeguards in the United States have said they are excited about drones. At the same time, they noted that the technology is no substitute for actual lifeguards and will not see widespread adoption until costs come down.

Chris Dembinsky, the 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 includes the famous Daytona Beach.

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

Mostly, he said, they’re used to patrol beaches and lake shores. They were particularly helpful in locating lost kayakers in the backwaters and helping guide them back to shore or relaying their exact location to public safety officials for rescue efforts.

In the future, Dembinsky wants to add more drones to his arsenal and use them in life-saving missions, but only if prices come down. Its budget only covers smaller models ranging from $3,000 to $8,000 that are more helpful for coastal patrols. But the life-saving ones can cost tens of thousands of dollars and are unattainable.

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

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Tom Gill, head of the Virginia Beach Lifesaving Service and vice president of the United States Lifesaving Association, agreed that drones would be helpful for lifeguards to patrol shorelines and assist with lifesaving missions.

In the best-case scenario, lifeguards or a drone could spot a drowning man. A drone could then be quickly deployed to toss them a life jacket. This would allow the person to stay afloat while a lifeguard swims or drives across in a watercraft to help the person return to shore.

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

“It can be nice when that drone is out there, and maybe they can get there faster than the lifeguard,” he said. “But often the lifeguard prevented that from the start.”


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