When two swimmers got into trouble at a beach on the state’s Far North Coast, the last place they might have expected a rescue to come from was the sky.
In a world-first, the pair were helped by a drone, piloted by lifeguard supervisor Jai Sheridan, that spotted them and then dropped a flotation device to assist them back to shore.
The drone is one of two Little Ripper Rescue UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) operating on the Far North Coast, with daily flights on beaches between Port Macquarie and Byron Bay helping to keep swimmers safe.
Surf Life Saving NSW chief executive Steven Pearce said the drones were the next stage in the evolution of lifesaving technology.
“It was just a natural thing to look at drones and see how they could assist surf lifesavers in both patrolled and unpatrolled locations where we can have some greater visibility,” he said.
Through a partnership with the Department of Primary Industries, Surf Life Saving NSW began the program last month with a small fleet of UAVs capable of shark spotting and rescues.
“We approached the Department of Primary Industries who were the agency looking after the shark mitigation strategy for NSW,” Mr Pearce said.
“We said, ‘We think we can run the drones better than the government department currently. We can use our trained lifesavers who are trained and skilled in identifying rips, dangerous surf and swimmers.’
“Once we sat down with the ministers, they were all over it. They thought it was a great initiative.”
Seventeen drones are now being used across the Far North Coast, including the two Little Ripper Rescue UAVs. Another two rescue drones are being used at beaches along Sydney’s northern beaches.
In 2016/17, 291 people drowned in waterways across Australia with 50 of those deaths occurring at beaches.
Mr Pearce said that the drone rescue at Lennox Head last week demonstrated that drones were a viable way to keep the beaches safe.
“What everyone saw nationally and worldwide was demonstrable evidence that a drone is a tangible resource that can now be used as a further extension for lifesavers,” he said.
“I’m at Cronulla at the moment and everyone is asking me, ‘When are we getting the drones here?’ “
Mr Pearce said the aim was eventually to roll out the program across the rest of the state, training more than 100 lifesavers to fly both the smaller shark spotting UAV and the Little Ripper Rescue UAV.
“We’re going to do the analysis of how the drone project has gone up in the Far North Coast in April,” he said.
“I’m really confident with the results and what Jai did the other day; he did it exceptionally well. It’s amazing.”
He said the drone was capable of a range of functions and could carry more than just rescue pods.
“We can carry any sort of payload on these drones. We can carry mini-defibrillator, we can carry shark shield pods if there’s any sharks approaching a swimmer. The payload options are endless.”
Surf Life Saving NSW said that other lifesaving organisations across Australia and the rest of the world were watching the program closely as they work to develop their own UAV programs.
While some people still hold privacy concerns over the technology, Mr Pearce said that their drone program was regulated by strict guidelines.
“We have really strict guidelines and we fly by CASA regulations,” he said. “There’s so many regulatory obligations that we have to abide by.”
Mr Pearce said that he hoped the drones could be used alongside other emergency services and eventually be rolled out to more clubs.
“There’s such a great use for these drones in other emergency environments, particularly flood rescues,” he said.
“What I see the future being is that during a flood emergency, standing side-by-side with those SES volunteers will be lifesavers in their lifesaving gear flying the drone and supporting them.
“I’m hoping to really push them further and further among the rest of our clubs.”
The Little Ripper UAV is sponsored by Westpac, complementing its sponsorship of the Life Saver Rescue Helicopter Services.