When a 14-year-old boy was in danger of drowning off the Spanish shores of Valencia last month, help came in an unusual form: a drone.
Within seconds of spotting trouble, lifeguards used walkie-talkies to notify trained drone pilots to fly one over to the child. The drone battled crosswinds and hovered a few feet over the boy, dropping an auto-inflating life vest. Shortly after the child put the vest on, a lifeguard arrived on a personal watercraft to bring him back to shore.
The rescue mission relied on technology from General Drones, a Spanish company that offers a preview into summers of the future: one where sun-kissed lifeguards can use drones to help respond to potential drownings quicker.
The technology has gained traction in Spain, where it’s being used on nearly two dozen beaches. In other countries, including the United States, lifeguards are also using drones as an extra set of eyes.
Lifesaving drones provide a crucial benefit, lifeguards and company officials say, especially when time is of the essence.
“Every second matters,” said Adrián Plazas Agudo, the chief executive of General Drones and a former lifeguard. “Our first response is in about five seconds … It’s very important to reduce the time.”
In the United States, the concept of lifeguarding originated around the 1700s, mostly to save people from shipwrecks. About a century later, as shipwrecks began to dwindle and recreational swimming rose, the roots of modern-day lifeguarding emerged: trained life savers patrolling pools and beaches, ready to respond.
For years, the tools of a lifeguard have not changed. Rescuers spot a person struggling in the water, rush out and throw them a doughnut-shaped ring buoy.
But as technology advanced, so did lifeguards’s gear.
Lifeguards began using personal watercraft and inflatable rafts around the 1980s to quickly reach people in danger on the beach. In the 2000s, companies created software to visually detect struggling swimmers in pools, providing lifeguards an early-warning system. (It is unclear whether these systems were ever commonly used.)
But lifeguards still face significant issues in saving people, said Bernard J. Fisher, the director of health and safety for the American Lifeguard Association. The pandemic halted lifeguard training, and the red-hot job market drove younger Americans to higher-paying summer gigs, sparking a national lifeguard shortage that’s forced fewer people to monitor wider swaths of shore. In the United States, roughly 3,690 people drown unintentionally per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Lifeguards must get to people struggling in the water as quickly as possible, Fisher said, and a delay of seconds could be the difference between life and death. Using motorboats to rush out to people is costly and still takes time, he added, and swimming to a person is a difficult process. The lifeguards in the water rely on colleagues on land to direct them. But if the person struggling in the water is tired, they could go underwater or move along the shoreline quickly, making it hard to be spotted.
“It’s difficult,” he said.
Agudo, who spent years as a lifeguard in Valencia and is an industrial engineer, started General Drones in 2015 after a harrowing incident on the beach. He was patrolling a stretch of shore alongside Enrique Fernández, who became his company co-founder. They saw a woman starting to drown and rushed out to her — but they were too late.
“I could see how the woman drowned in front of me,” he said. “It was the breaking point.”
After that, Agudo and Fernández partnered with engineers at Valencia’s Polytechnic University to create a drone that could reach people quicker than the fastest swimmer or water scooter and potentially save lives. They realized the beach was a harsh environment and needed a drone that could withstand water, sand and wind.
Ultimately, they created a drone that’s roughly two feet wide and weighs about 22 pounds. Made of carbon fiber and wrapped in a Go-Pro-like casing, it keeps the beach environment from eroding the mechanical innards. The drone is outfitted with a high-resolution camera and carries two folded life vests that inflate upon touching water.
Currently, 22 beaches in Spain use the technology, Agudo said. It has been used in roughly 40 to 50 lifesaving incidents in Spain. The drones can reach speeds of 50 mph and monitor roughly 3.5 miles of shore.
The drone, called the Auxdron LFG, costs roughly 40,000 euros to purchase. Counties that purchase the drone also shell out 15,000 euros per month for specialized drone pilots who’ve been trained by General Drones to execute the challenging task of flying a drone out into the ocean, where winds are strong, and deploying life vests precisely over someone who’s drowning.
A number of lifeguard officials in the United States said they are excited about drones. At the same time, they noted that the technology is not a replacement for actual lifeguards and will not get widespread adoption until the cost comes down.
Chris Dembinsky, the technology manager for Florida’s Volusia County beach safety division, said he has four small drones in his arsenal to patrol the lakes and beaches in his jurisdiction, which include famed Daytona Beach.
Dembinsky said he can’t use his drones for lifesaving missions right now. They are too small to drop buoys or help tow people ashore. The life vests they drop whip around in the wind too much.
Mostly, he said, they are used to help patrol beaches and lakefronts. They have been particularly helpful in finding kayakers lost in the backwaters and helping guide them back ashore or feeding their precise location to public safety officials for rescue efforts.
In the future, Dembinsky would like to add more drones to his arsenal and deploy them in lifesaving missions, but only if the prices come down. His budget only covers smaller $3,000 to $8,000 models, which are more helpful for patrolling shores. But the lifesaving ones can cost tens of thousands of dollars and are out of reach.
“If we had that amount of money,” he said, “we would probably pay our lifeguards more.”
Tom Gill, chief of the Virginia Beach Lifesaving Service and vice president of the United States Lifesaving Association, agreed that drones would be helpful for lifeguards to patrol the shores and assist in lifesaving missions.
In a best-case scenario, he said, lifeguards or a drone could spot a drowning person. Then a drone could be quickly deployed to drop a life vest to them. That would allow the person to stay afloat while a lifeguard swims or rides a personal watercraft over to help the person come back ashore.
But he said that no matter how advanced the technology gets, drones cannot replace lifeguards, who can spot unsafe situations as they’re beginning.
“It may be nice to have that drone go out there and maybe they do get there quicker than the lifeguard,” he said. “But a lot of times the lifeguard has already prevented this from happening in the first place.”