In what is being described as a “first,” lifeguards successfully deployed a drone to rescue two boys in trouble while swimming off the eastern coast of Australia on Thursday.

It was all a bit of serendipity, too. Members of the Australian Lifeguard Service just happened to be training with the drone — which is being developed to spot sharks — when they got word that the swimmers were having difficulty nearby as they encountered a 9-foot swell in rough surf conditions, according to a surf lifesaving website in New South Wales. 

And the man piloting the drone at the time just happened to be Jai Sheridan, the 2017 New South Wales Lifeguard of the Year.


A yellow flotation device is dropped from a flying drone toward two teenagers caught in a riptide in heavy seas off the Australian coast on Jan. 18. (Screen grab/Westpac Little Ripper/AP)

He steered the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), which is equipped with a flotation pod that can be dropped into the sea, toward the swimmers, who were about half a mile away. After spotting them, he dropped the pod with pinpoint accuracy.

The two grabbed onto it and made it to shore with the help of the waves. A team of lifeguards who had raced to the scene in an ATV greeted the two. They were unharmed.

The Surf Lifesaving website called it a “world first.”

“I was able to launch it, fly it to the location, and drop the pod all in about one to two minutes,” Sheridan said.


The Westpac Little Ripper UAV and Rescue Pod at Bilgola Beach in New South Wales, Australia, used to drop the flotation device. (Westpac Little Ripper/AP)

This was not your Apple store drone. It was a sophisticated UAV called “Little Ripper” described by its corporate sponsor, Westpac, as having a carbon fibre air frame and aircraft grade aluminum components.

Drones, which have in recent years made news for taking lives rather than saving them. But helping to save people at sea is clearly a future use of UAVs.

The Coast Guard is reportedly considering acquisition of a drone fleet to use for both search and rescue as well as drug interdiction, according to Military.com. The potential is “limitless,” Coast Guard Vice Commandant Adm. Charles Michel said at a conference last year.

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