Surf lifesaving rides into future on drones

Westpac Little Ripper

Jeremy Pierce
Sunday Mail
September 22

DRONES are being programmed with artificial intelligence to recognise drowning swimmers in a breakthrough set to revolutionise surf lifesaving.

In scenes reminiscent of science fiction, the same technology being used to enable Westpac Little Ripper drones to identify sharks is being adapted to pinpoint swimmers in distress.

The news comes as Surf Life Saving Queensland statistics last week revealed last year was the deadliest on record for the state’s beaches, with 21 suspected drownings .

Drones are fast becoming one of surf lifesaving’s most valuable resources with the devices already capable of assisting in rescues by dropping flotation devices to swimmers in trouble as well as performing other key tasks in rescue operations.

However, the latest innovation takes the technology to a whole new level by reducing the onus on lifesavers to spot a swimmer in distress from a drone control monitor.

By feeding thousands of images in to a complex computer algorithm, drones can now pick up on the telltale signs of a swimmer in difficulty and lock in on them to rush to the rescue.

The Ripper Group has signed a three-year, multimillion-dollar deal with a Japanese consortium known as the General Foundation for International Disaster Countermeasures in the hope the technology can be used to rescue survivors from natural disasters in the Asian nation.

A Japanese delegation is already on the Gold Coast receiving training on how to use the new technology, with plans for more than 500 Japanese drone pilots to follow suit over the next three years.

Surf Life Saving Queensland’s lifesaving operations co-ordinator Jason Argent said the new adaptation could be a massive asset in the relentless battle to keep beachgoers safe.

“While drones won’t replace the need for surf lifesavers and lifeguards on the beach, they will definitely add significant value to our existing services,” he said.

“We’re really excited by recent advances in drone technology and look forward to further findings produced by Surf Life Saving Australia’s research and development partner, the Ripper Group.”

Westpac Ripper Group CEO Ben Trollope said the amazing technology was like something out of a science fiction show.

“Lifesavers are under enough strain as it is, so this will help take the pressure off the humans,” he said. “It’s like The Jetsons in 2020.”

Japanese test pilot Etsuko Matsuo, from the GFIDC, said the Little Ripper drones had enormous potential to help recovery efforts in her homeland where tsunamis and earthquakes can cause devastating damage.

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