Delivering Good: The Future of Drone Technology and Ocean Rescue

Delivering Good: The Future of Drone Technology and Ocean Rescue

One day in the near future, you and your friends and family could be enjoying a day at your favorite beach and be joined by an “eye-in-the-sky” drone tasked with making sure you all stay safe.

It’s already happening in Australia, where the Ripper Corporation has reported the world’s first ocean rescue of distressed swimmers in 2018; the company’s Little  Ripper Lifesaver drone deployed a flotation device, saving two teens caught in turbulent surf off the beach in New South Wales.

In an interview with Ripper Corporation senior pilot Mark Phillips, Phillips recounted the moment the yellow rescue pod was released, immediately inflated in the water, and offered support to the swimmers, “We got a call that said there were some people needing rescue. We were there training to do that and so…we sprang into action. It happened so quickly, it was just amazing…all these things we practiced and tested worked.”

Saving lives and doing good for others is important to Ripper Corporation CEO Jason Young. His grandfather Kevin Weldon, founder of the company, has been involved in surf lifesaving for more than seven decades. The family has always lived by the beach and knows firsthand how the power of water can tragically claim lives.

Reducing the chances of that happening is why The Ripper Corporation was launched in 2015.

“Technology like ours, the Little Ripper Lifesaver, is an important system…so families and their children come home safely after a day at the beach,” said CEO Jason Young. “This is an added tool in the toolbox, so to speak. This is to provide eyes in the sky, a bird’s eye view of the situation. This is a tool to aid lifesavers and lifeguards around the world, to support beyond the traditional rescue methods. It’s not to replace, but to enhance capability.”

Advancing Drone Technology

When the company launched, Young said the team worked hard to develop the technology and made sure the lifesaving drone would be easy to use when rolled out. “We challenged the status quo; we challenged the technology available,” Young explained. “We said the drone needs to be able to have rescue capabilities; we need to be able to communicate with people, so it needs a loudspeaker; we need to have an alarm if we have sharks to be able to warn someone if there is a shark, and have the ability to deploy a flotation device or a defibrillator or a first aid kit.”

The Ripper Corporation also uses its drones to save people on land; for example, helping to locate and save someone who may be injured while hiking.

The company hopes to soon be able to receive sound from the drone. “We can talk, but what we’d like to do is hear what [the person being rescued] is saying, so if someone had broken their leg on a bushwalk, we could communicate back and forth—that's the latest in the R&D shed at the moment,” Young said.

Young said the smart drone that the Ripper Corporation uses today has gone through several rounds of Research and Development and testing.

The current model is even fitted with a SharkSpotter artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm to detect sharks in the water to keep people safer when swimming.  “We have quite a multipurpose aircraft. The technology moves so fast, we’re constantly keeping up with what’s available,” he said.

Young said pioneering the new drone technology to save lives in the marine environment can have challenges in starting up—for example, getting the regulatory approvals to operate on crowded beaches. But he said in the case of the Ripper Corporation, the company’s trusted reputation and experience have solved any operational issues; their sustainable drone fleet has been involved in thousands of lifesaving interventions.

Job Creation Thanks to Drone Technology

Drone technology is not only delivering good by saving people’s lives, it’s also helping communities by powering new jobs. Drone pilots are in high demand now.

The Ripper Corporation, he said, offers an aviation academy to propel people interested in a commercial drone license. “We train for jobs of the future. Imagine you’ve done your engineering degree and on top of that, you have your full commercial drone license— it’s a good thing to have on your resume,” Young said. “Certainly in Australia nearly every school has some form of robotics, coding, or drone program, so it’s going to be something that you need to know. It’s certainly a growing industry,” Young noted.

Image Courtesy of Little Ripper Lifesaver drone - Ripper Corporation

Livesaving Drones in the U.S.

Lifesaving drones are capturing the attention of many localities in the United States, where unmanned systems may soon become more commonplace. The Hampton Roads area of Virginia is one example.

“There’s so much that these technologies can do to help us with…and used for good,” said Tracy Tynan, Director of the Virginia Unmanned Systems Center at the Virginia Center for Innovative Technology (CIT).

CIT and the Virginia Institute for Spaceflight and Autonomy (VISA) have recently launched a program to develop and expand unmanned ground, aerial, maritime, and space technologies. This includes “exploring the potential and viability of using drones to deploy flotation devices to complement lifeguard rescue operations along Virginia beaches, as well as identifying riptides and marine life such as sharks,” Tynan said.

National LifeSaving Statistics, provided by Thomas Gill, the Vice President of the United States Lifesaving Association and Chief of the Virginia Beach Lifesaving Service, lists beach attendance as 408,965,638 across the U.S., with 71,034 rescues taking place in 2019 alone. The data shows 152 people drowned—124 of those happened in unguarded areas, 28 in guarded beaches.

Gill said that being on a guarded beach is always safer due to lifeguards’ extensive training and expertise. As for adding drones to help out, Gill said it may depend: “Every locality is different—there’s not going to be a blanket approach that works in one place that’s going to work in the other. I think technology when used appropriately, tested well and not put in to replace, but rather supplement lifesaving, can be useful. It just has to be really responsible, and you have to look at the conditions of every beach. They’re all going to be different in how they can best be used.”

In the Rockaways,  beach Chief Lifeguard Janet Fash has been protecting swimmers who flock to this New York City oceanfront for decades. Fash learned how to swim at the YMCA as a young girl and began lifeguarding in the late 1970s. “There are so many rescues in the Rockaways,” she said. “A lot of nonswimmers enter the ocean and don’t really know about rip currents.”

Fash and her team have saved countless lives through the years. But there was one tragedy long ago that stays etched in her mind. Despite how fast the lifeguards were, a person caught in especially rough waters went down so fast and did not make it, she said. “That really affected me.”

When asked what she thought about drone technology to assist as a lifesaving tool, Fash said even though NYC has an abundance of lifeguards, “It could be something beneficial if a drone had a rescue device and was able to utilize that. In big surf when multiple rescues are going on, it could be a tremendous help.”

In freshwater lakes, like Lake Michigan—the deadliest of the Great Lakes—drones are currently being used to reach swimmers in danger and deploy a flotation device faster than a lifeguard can swim out there. First responders say the drones also provide crucial details about the scene thanks to the drone’s aerial vantage point.

In Utah, where is based, Devan Chavez, public information officer for Utah State Parks, said, “At this time, Utah State Parks does not have plans to utilize drones to deploy personal floatation devices, or other materials to individuals in our managed waterbodies. We do not have immediate plans to explore this at the moment, but as technology advances and discussions continue, that may change.”

Chavez added, “While technology does have a great place in helping us keep water recreators in Utah safe, the best first line of defense to those recreating in the water remains the life jacket. Nationally, 80% of those who drowned in boating-related accidents could have survived had they been wearing a life jacket at the time. Life jackets save lives.”

Image Courtesy of Little Ripper Lifesaver drone - Ripper Corporation

Safety and Privacy Concerns with Increased Drone Use

When asked about his thoughts on drone technology in general, security expert Bill Kerr of Virginia said this about his main concerns: "The biggest worry I have is an attitude of complacency. We have a tendency as humans to become blinded by everyday occurrences. This same lack of recognition can be applied toward helpful drones. As it becomes a common event, it will be mostly ignored by the general public, and this is where the danger lies. If a drone can be used to drop a self-inflating flotation device, what else might it be capable of ‘dropping’?” asked  Kerr.

Proponents of the technology, however, point to the good drones deliver in saving lives.

For people concerned about privacy or safety, or who may be wary about seeing drones in general, Young said that from the outset, the Ripper Corporation has prioritized making sure people can trust and be comfortable with the Little Ripper Lifesaver brand. “They know the purpose of the drone and why it is there, and that is definitely part of what we deliver with our company. That is why we are trying to be very visible. Our pilots are very visible,” Young said, “and so is the drone itself.”

Young pointed out that the Little Ripper Lifesaver drone is unique and easy to identify. “The red and yellow, the branding, the way in which we fly the drones—it’s not erratic; it doesn’t come across as sneaky; we fly it in a certain way,” Young said. “That transparency around what’s being captured is very important in getting that community acceptance.”

Edited by Rachel Swan