When a 14-year-old boy was at risk of drowning off the Spanish coast of Valencia last month, help came in an unusual form: a drone.
Drones help rescuers save lives
The rescue mission relied on technology from General Drones, a Spanish company that offers a glimpse into future summers: one where sunny rescuers can use drones to help respond to potential drownings more quickly.
The technology has gained traction in Spain, where it is used on nearly two dozen beaches. In other countries, including the United States, rescuers also use drones as an extra pair of eyes.
According to rescuers and company officials, rescue drones offer a crucial advantage, especially when time is of the essence.
“Every second counts,” said Adrián Plazas Agudo, general manager of General Drones and former lifeguard. “Our first response is about five seconds… It’s very important to reduce the time.”
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In the United States, the concept of rescue originated around the 1700s, primarily to save people from shipwrecks. About a century later, as shipwrecks began to dwindle and recreational swimming increased, the roots of modern lifesaving emerged: trained lifeguards patrolling pools and beaches, ready to respond.
For years, the tools of a rescuer have not changed. Lifeguards spot a struggling person in the water, rush in and throw a donut-shaped buoy.
But as technology evolved, so did the equipment for lifeguards.
Lifeguards began using personal watercraft 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 in difficulty in swimming pools, providing lifeguards with an early warning system. (It is unclear whether these systems were ever in common use.)
But lifeguards still face significant challenges in saving people, said Bernard J. Fisher, director of health and safety for the American Lifeguard Association. The pandemic has halted lifeguard training and the scorching job market has pushed young Americans into better-paying summer gigs, sparking a nationwide shortage of lifeguards that has forced fewer people to watch larger stretches of shoreline. In the United States, approximately 3,690 people accidentally drown each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Rescuers need to reach people struggling in the water as quickly as possible, Fisher said, and a delay of seconds could mean the difference between life and death. Using motorboats to rush to people is expensive and still time-consuming, he added, and swimming to a person is a difficult process. Rescuers in the water rely on colleagues on land to lead them. But if the person struggling in the water is tired, they could go underwater or move quickly along the shore, making them difficult to spot.
“It’s difficult,” 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 shoreline alongside Enrique Fernández, who became the co-founder of his company. They saw a woman begin to drown and rushed towards her – but they were too late.
“I could see how the woman drowned in front of me,” he said. “That 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 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 about two feet wide and weighing about 22 pounds. Crafted from carbon fiber and wrapped in a Go-Pro-like 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 in contact with water.
Currently, 22 beaches in Spain use this technology, Aguro said. It has been used in approximately 40-50 rescue incidents in Spain. The drones can reach speeds of up to 50 mph and survey around 3.5 miles of shoreline.
The drone, called Auxdron LFG, costs around 40,000 euros to buy. Counties that purchase the drone also pay $15,000 per month for specialist drone pilots who have been trained by General Drones to perform the difficult task of flying a drone in the ocean, where winds are high, and deploying life jackets precisely on someone. who is drowning.
A number of lifeguards in the United States have said they are excited about drones. At the same time, they noted that the technology does not replace actual lifesavers and will not be widely adopted until the cost is reduced.
Chris Dembinsky, chief technology officer for Volusia County Florida’s beach safety division, said he has four small drones in his arsenal to patrol lakes and beaches in his jurisdiction, including the famed Daytona. Beach.
Dembinsky said he cannot 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 drop spin too much in the wind.
Most of the time, he said, they are used to help patrol beaches and lakeshores. They have been particularly useful in finding kayakers lost in the backwaters and guiding them to shore or providing their precise location to public safety officials for rescue efforts.
Going forward, Dembinsky would like to add more drones to his arsenal and deploy them on rescue missions, but only if prices drop. Its budget only covers the smaller $3,000 to $8,000 models, which are more useful for patrolling coastlines. But those that save lives can cost tens of thousands of dollars and are out of reach.
“If we had that amount of money,” he said, “we would probably pay our rescuers 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 useful for lifeguards to patrol coastlines and help with rescue missions.
In the 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 on them. This would allow the person to stay afloat while a rescuer swims or rides a personal watercraft to help them get back to shore.
But he said no matter how advanced the technology, drones cannot replace rescuers, who can spot dangerous situations early.
“Maybe it would be nice to have that drone there and maybe they would get there faster than the rescuer,” he said. “But often the rescuer has already prevented that from happening in the first place.”