Aerial image of a DJI M600 Pro rescue unmanned aircraft system. Photo courtesy of Surf Life Saving New South Wales
An unmanned aircraft system (UAS) rendered aid last month in what was perhaps the first rescue of its kind.
The drone rescued two distressed swimmers off the coast of Lennox Head, in New South Wales (NSW), Australia. The event is said to be the first documented instance of a drone deploying a search and rescue (SAR) payload in an actual emergency, when lifeguards received an alert that two swimmers were in trouble off of Lennox Head after a media day to demonstrate various drone capabilities Jan. 18.
As Kelvin Morton from DroneAdvantage Australia told R&WI, a lifeguard deployed a drone called The Little Ripper, which immediately deployed an inflatable device that landed near the swimmers who were then able to use it to return safely to shore.
The event occurred after a media event to demonstrate various drone capabilities as part of a state-run program between Surf Life Saving New South Wales (SLSNSW) and the NSW state government.
The nearly $12.5 million ($16 million Australian dollar) Shark Management Strategy, as the program is called, has implemented the largest drone shark surveillance program of its kind anywhere in the world. This program, which is currently in a trial period, works in conjunction with the University of Technology Sydney and NSW-based drone operator The Ripper Group to test an artificial intelligence system able to detect sharks with high accuracy in real time.
An adjunct to the surveillance program is the provision of a rescue capability.
As part of the trial program, The Ripper Group provides a fleet of line-of-sight UAS tasked with surveillance and lifesaving operations. Although a host of drones are available through The Ripper Group, those fielded by SLSNSW consist of two variants: the quadrotor DJI Phantom 4Pro and the larger six-rotor DJI Matrice 600 Pro. The M600 Pro has been configured with additional over-the-counter attachments like cameras, shark sirens and a drop mechanism to deploy a rescue pod.
Because of its size, it is in a weight category that requires operators to have a remote pilot licence. And because its use is considered to be commercial, it must also be operated under a remote operators license. The Ripper Group provides those operating licences as well as technical maintenance, support and training for all SLSNSW professional lifeguards and volunteer lifesavers.
Morton explained the project:
“On Dec. 15, we went live at nine locations with 18 Phantom 4 shark surveillance drones provided by The Ripper Group. At each location we fly a minimum of seven flights a day with many locations flying more due to the enthusiasm with which the lifeguards have embraced the technology. SLSNSW prides itself on the relentless pursuit of excellence when it comes to surf lifesaving operations. The faster we can react, the more lives we can save. This is why we also deployed two larger mobile UAS where we transport them to specific beaches depending on prevailing conditions. Set-up and deployment is extremely fast — less than 60 seconds — so we see significant value in using them as mobile units because there are considerably more expensive and we need to be selective about where we deploy them.”
As part of the rescue requirement, The Ripper Group configured the DJI M600 Pro with a high-definition Zenmuse Z3 optical camera and an alert siren and installed a drop mechanism specifically developed for the M600. The Ripper Group’s considerable expertise comes into its own with the specially developed inflatable pods.
Designed by The Ripper Group and manufactured under license by SOS Marine in Australia, the Marine Rescue Pod ULB inflates upon impact with the water and becomes an 8-foot-long tube, which distressed persons can grasp to stay afloat until the cavalry arrives in the form of a Jet Ski, an inflatable rubber boat or a lifeguard on a rescue board.
“The Rescue Pod is best described like a handbag-like payload which is carried by the drone,” said Ross Spencer, managing director at SOS Marine. “Once it is released into the water, it’s designed to self inflate within five seconds.”
Each pod can accommodate four people, he continued. It is also reusable. But it does have to be serviced and maintained.
Eddie Bennet, CEO of Westpac Little Ripper, shared his thoughts on rescue drones and the payload capacity of its larger UAS:
“There was some discussion about flying UAS over people, but the water safety experts we consulted all agree that if it’s a matter of someone potentially drowning, the perceived risk of a UAS becomes moot. The next part of the equation is the rescue pod that we designed, and the drone release mechanism. We ensured the UAS could carry two pods in case one didn’t drop close to those in distress, or if multiple people are involved.”
Naturally, helicopters afford much greater capability. But with that capability comes significant cost in training, operation and maintenance, and that limits the number of platforms agencies can field.
Morton said the group has access to some helicopters, such as from Westpac Rescue, but they pose some challenges.
“They are incredibly good at what they do, and they actively monitor the surfcomm channel for any events they need to get involved in. The challenge is that they can also be quite some distance away from beaches where they need to render assistance,” said Morton. “In this case, we were in the right place at the right time with an air asset on station within seconds. We wouldn’t have been able to pluck them out of the water, but we rendered aid, and I’m positive we saved their lives.”
It’s clear that drones can deliver significant effect. But in the realm of search and rescue, things are focused to a much greater extent on search, while the burgeoning rescue aspect is more in line with assisting a rescue, as was seen in this case. Drones are a natural adjunct to helicopter search-and-rescue assets and one that will certainly grow as more users define requirements and build to them.
The SLSNSW trials continue through April 28, when a comprehensive review will be conducted.
Joetey Attariwala trained as a medical doctor and now contributes as a journalist in aerospace, defense, law enforcement and medical specialties.