A new rescue drone was barely out of the box before it was put to use in a real rescue at Lennox Head in NSW, Australia, on Thursday. Two teenage boys were seen in distress about a kilometre north of the patrol area at Lennox Head, on the New South Wales far north coast. The teenagers were saved by a drone in a first-of-its-kind rescue mission by an unmanned aircraft.
The drone, developed by Little Ripper LifeSAVER, is capable of dropping a flotation device to swimmers in distress. The 17-year-old and 15-year-old boys were about 700 meters offshore in a swell of about 3 meters. Onlookers reported seeing the boys, and within 70 seconds the new drone had located the boys and dropped an inflatable flotation device to them compared to the six minutes it usually takes a lifeguard to rescue swimmers. The boys clung to the rescue pod and were able to swim ashore. They were exhausted but unharmed.
The rescue drones had just been unveiled at Lennox Head that morning, as part of the collaboration between Surf Life Saving NSW and the State Government. “This is a world-first rescue,” Deputy Premier John Barilaro said,” Never before has a drone fitted with a flotation device been used to rescue swimmers like this” he added.
Ballina lifeguard supervisor Jai Sheridan, who operated the drone, said being part of the operation had been “unreal”. “I’m just so happy that it was a really good outcome and these two boys were able to make it to shore safely,” he said. “Between taking off and spotting the swimmers and then deploying the flotation device, it took us only about 70 seconds. I was able to launch it, fly it to the location, and drop the pod all in about one to two minutes,” ” he happily reported. The drone footage showed a birds-eye view of the ocean before the drone ejected the yellow flotation device, which inflated when it hits the water.
Surf Life Saving NSW project manager for UAV, Kelvin Morton said, “There is no other lifesaving operation or organization worldwide that is doing what we’re doing on the size and scale that we’re doing it,”. Mr. Morton said the drones gave surf lifesavers a new advantage. “It gives them eyes across the water at a height of 60 meters and they can move at 50 kilometers an hour,” he elaborated.
Little Ripper LifeSAVER is currently developing and integrating lifesaving devices into lightweight pods that can be easily mounted and deployed from drones. The pods have been designed to deploy automatic external defibrillators (AEDs), flotation devices, electromagnetic shark repellant devices, and personal survival kits (that include water, a thermal blanket, a radio, and a first aid kit). Based on a DJI Matrice 600 and with a maximum weight of 15kg, the drone can carry a payload of up to 7kg, and take off in winds of up to 20 knots.
Little Ripper LifeSAVER CEO Eddie Bennett spoke about the technology driving Little Ripper UAVs in November last year. Using a cloud-based AI developed by Intel – the Movidius™ Neural Compute Stick – it was shown that AI processing could be performed directly on the UAV. This allows for efficient and immediate danger detection and response times. “If we are able to use artificial intelligence to help us detect people and respond to situation then that is going to be a wonderful opportunity to save lives.”
“The Little Ripper UAV certainly proved itself today,” Sheridan said. “It is an amazingly efficient piece of lifesaving equipment and a delight to fly.”
The rescue came on the heels of a statewide $430,000 investment in drone technology exploring how drones can be used for shark surveillance, which is currently in a trial period.
“Research conducted by DPI indicates drones will be an important tool for shark detection on our beaches, and it’s great to see the benefits of our research working at Lennox Head today,” said Department of Primary Industries Director of Fisheries Research, Dr Natalie Moltschaniwskyj.