Rescue drone could prevent drownings at US beaches


  • TECH
  • Monday, 23 Aug 2021

A file photo shows a drone with a safety flotation device attached underneath flying over a beach north of Sydney. A US police department developed a similar drone rescue kit to help save struggling swimmers. — AFP

One day very soon, a struggling swimmer caught in a riptide off Baldwin County’s beaches could look up to see a drone dropping a lifesaving float. And while the swimmer probably won’t know it, the drone’s flight will honour a first responder who died during a surf rescue earlier this year.

On Friday, the Mobile Police Department demonstrated a drone rescue kit developed by its Cyber Intelligence Unit. Baldwin County Sheriff Hoss Mack, who was on hand for the demonstration, said his office has already accepted one of the kits from Mobile and that it was ready for immediate use.

The demonstration itself was straighforward, in the calm conditions of the Mobile River just off Cooper Riverside Park: As a swimmer treaded water, the drone flew in to hover over him, dropping a small bundle. When it hit the water a few feet away from the swimmer, the bundle instantly inflated into a bright yellow horseshoe with plenty of grab handles.

In conditions like those off the Fort Morgan peninsula on June 6, the difference made by such a drone could be dramatic. On that day, Baldwin County Deputy Bill Smith was the first rescuer to hit the water in a situation in which as many as three people were in danger of drowning. He successfully got a flotation device to one of them, and the efforts of other rescue personnel got all three safely to shore. Smith himself died.

“When Bill Smith entered the water that day, he had one thing on his mind,” said Mack. “And we know that, because we’ve listened to the recordings from his dash camera prior to entering the water. And that was, to save a human life. And he did that. He saved a human life that day. But unfortunately, he lost his in doing that.”

Mobile Police Cmdr. Kevin Levy said the incident caused officer in the Cyber unit to begin thinking about a technological remedy. It didn’t take long to establish that drones could do the job, but putting the kit together involved some trial and error.

“We came up with the idea relatively quickly after we saw the need,” said Levy. “Most of the time was really spent ensuring that it operates the way it’s supposed to, because what we don’t want to do is give someone a false sense of security.”

Mayor Sandy Stimpson said the cost of a drone rescue kit was under US$5,000 (RM21,190). Mack said it was an honour to accept the drone kit in Smith’s name.

Mack said that Levy’s unit trained several Baldwin deputies in how to use the drone kit, and that the first one is already in a beach rescue vehicle, ready for use. He’s open to adding more, he said. In the meantime, he said, the first drone kit is “another tool in the toolbox” of beach rescuers. In the right circumstances, he said, it will allow deputies to save a life without risking theirs.

Mack said the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office and the Mobile Cyber Intelligence Unit have a longstanding working relationship. “We do try to bridge the gap on information between the two counties,” he said. – al.com/Tribune News Service

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