Surf lifesaving trials use of drones in rescues amid fears of risk to beachgoers

SURF lifesaving drones will be trialled for the first time in Queensland this week – but lifesavers fear a beachgoer could be killed if one of the unmanned aerial devices “falls out of the sky”.

The Westpac Little Ripper and Mini-Ripper drones have been unleashed on northern NSW beaches in recent months following a spate of shark attacks.

Little Ripper Lifesaver CEO Eddie Bennett with the drone to be trialled over the Gold Coast beaches. Pic: Adam Head

The unmanned aircraft can drop flotation devices and are equipped with ­cameras and alarms, as well as loudspeakers to give messages in multiple languages to stricken swimmers.

Surf Life Saving Queensland will trial the drones, launched by multi-millionaire businessman Kevin Weldon, a former Gold Coast lifesaver, on North Stradbroke Island next week.

SLSQ chief George Hill said lifesavers were keen to trial the drones but there were concerns about safety with drones flying over crowded beaches.

“We’re keen to embrace new technology but safety is our No. 1 priority,’’ Mr Hill said. “We don’t want one of these things falling out of the sky and hitting someone.”

Mr Hill said there were also questions about the suitability of drones for Queensland’s often wild weather.

Beachgoers can expect to see drone protection if the trial is successful. Pic: Adam Head

“Everyone gets excited about drones because they’re a new toy but we have a lot of high winds along the Queensland coastline,” he said. “You can’t put up a drone when it’s wet or windy, and it’s bad weather that creates dangerous surf conditions.”

Mr Hill said SLSQ was keen to work with Mr ­Weldon, who co-founded the International Lifesaving Federation, to trial the drones. A Gold Coast trial is planned for next month.

Mr Weldon said there was resistance to new technology in lifesaving and lifeguard circles but he believed the drones would save lives.

He said the old reel, line and belt once used by lifesavers “drowned more people than it saved” yet there had been resistance to rubber duckies and jetskis.

“My goal is to have a drone in every surf club in Australia within three years,” he said.

“They can drop (lifesaving) pods to (drowning) swimmers within seconds, as well as defibrillators.

A drone’s eye view of the beach. Pic: Drone Bros

“They’d be great for an event like Schoolies to give extra protection for all the kids on the beach. The drones don’t replace lifesavers and lifeguards; they simply enhance the service they provide.”

Gold Coast chief lifeguard Warren Young said the jury was out on the value of surf lifesaving drones but he supported the trial.

“It’s good to try all the new technology but if the first responder doesn’t get to a drowning person within seconds, people die,” he said.

Drones fitted with cam­eras were used by police during their investigation into last month’s Dreamworld ride disaster.
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