ASBURY PARK, N.J. — In the not-too-distant future it may not be a lifeguard who gets to a distressed swimmer first.
It may be a drone.
Drones, which have been used in everything from war to photography to package delivery, may become the newest tool in the lifesaving arsenal.
A drone is already at work in Seal Beach, Calif., where lifeguards are using the flying device to monitor sharks.
“It’s an extremely valuable tool for our water observation,” said Joe Bailey, chief of Seal Beach’s Marine Safety and Lifeguard Department.
Now, lifeguards in Long Branch, N.J., may be equipped with the technology to get life preservers out to swimmers in the ocean faster than a lifeguard could reach them.
It would not replace the rescue work done by lifeguards in the water, however, who would still swim or row out to a victim.
“This is not to cut back on any lifeguards. This is a lifeguard’s tool to help move them along a lot faster in making the save, getting a life preserver out to a person,” said Michael Sirianni, president of the Long Branch City Council.
The idea was discussed this week at a council workshop meeting by Long Branch officials.
There are several ways the city envisions that drones could be helpful during life-saving events and to monitor beaches.
“In extreme conditions like red flag, big surf, high winds, where you normally have trouble getting out to someone, you would be able to use it,” said Dan George, the chief of Long Branch’s beach patrol.
George said drones could potentially be flown out at long range, a mile or two, to reach distressed stand-up paddle boarders, kite surfers or capsized boats.
The cameras on drones could help locate submerged persons quicker, while microphones and speakers could enable lifeguards to talk to a person in the water if they were responsive. Some models can even deliver flotation devices.
George said drones could also be used to monitor the beach in the event of a shark sighting, like Seal Beach.
“If it’s being developed we need to be on top of it. Anything we can do to protect and give a better service to our guests is an added plus,” Sirianni said.
The price of the drones Long Branch looked at ranged from $1,300 to $7,000.
Seal Beach is using a model from TJI called the Phantom 3, which prices between $1,000 to $1,500. The drone can fly up to 1.2 miles away from its pilot and deliver live high definition views to a video display phone or tablet.
Bailey said Seal Beach lifeguards have had their drone for five weeks and have been flying two-man morning patrols over the shoreline. He said one person acts as a spotter for the drone while the other pilots the controls.
“It scoots along pretty quickly,” Bailey said.
Tom Gill, spokesman for the U.S. Lifesaving Association, said he hasn’t heard a whole lot of talk from other beach departments across the county about drones.
But he said they have been a topic of conversation by emergency responders in North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
“It’s mainly been discussed by the fire departments. When there is an alarm at one of those out of reach cottages, they could send a drone to make an initial survey,” Gill said.
But he says he’s aware of the work being done by Seal Beach and does see the potential for drones on the beaches.
“Any tool that can be used to improve safety and response times is a good thing,” he said. “We’re accepting of any new technology and how it could help us.”