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FDNY tests drones for swimmer rescues, shark deterrent

The FDNY and the NYPD are reviewing drones that can drop flotation devices, electromagnetic shark deterrents

By Thomas Tracy
New York Daily News

NEW YORK — New aerial sea rescue devices are under testing by the New York City’s Fire Department — drones, equipped with floats that automatically inflate when they’re dropped in the water next to troubled swimmers.

The department is fine-tuning a pilot program in which a drones buzzing over beaches could drop flotation buoys to struggling swimmers, the Daily News has learned. A small CO2 cannister automatically inflates the buoy when it hits the water.

The idea is to give imperiled swimmers something to hold on to as a lifeguard swims over.

The program is in its early stages, city officials said, adding that the NYPD is also working on a similar plan with its drone fleet.

The FDNY came up with the plan in August, after a shark severely injured a 65-year-old woman by chomping down on her leg off Rockaway Beach in Queens.

Fearing further shark attacks, the department began patrolling the waters off the beaches by flying camera-equipped drones over the Rockaways.

Shark attacks are rare — no one has died of one in New York State in decades. Department drones spotted six sharks in their scans of the ocean after swimmer Tatyana Koltunyuk was bitten, but none of the sharks came close to the shoreline, officials said.

But the drone patrol exposed to FDNY brass and other city officials a far more common danger: New York City beachgoers often struggle in the water. Twenty-three people died in New York City of accidental drowning in 2020, the last year for which complete city data is available.

“Swimmers in distress come up far more than sharks,” said Captain Michael Leo, head of the FDNY’s Robotics Unit.

So many swimmers were seen in distress during the August shark watch, the FDNY altered its mission parameters as they monitored the beach, Leo said.

“We changed the name of our mission to life safety overwatch almost right away,” he said. “We didn’t want the shark thing to be the full picture.”

Looking for rip currents became one aim of the mission. Rip currents often pull swimmers away from New York City shorelines, Leo said. Nationwide, about 70 swimmers drown per year as they tire while swimming against the strung current, according to the National Weather Service.

“We found that looking out for swimmers and letting the lifeguards know about rip currents so they can tell swimmers to avoid them could all easily be done in the same mission,” Leo said.

Another aim was to look for swimmers in distress. But when swimmers in trouble were spotted via the drones, the lifeguards on duty had already noticed them and had already jumped into the ocean to rescue them, said FDNY officials.

But the guards didn’t spot everyone seen by the drones. One day in early September, the drones spotted 15 swimmers in distress. All those swimmers had already been spotted by lifeguards — “except for one,” Leo said.

That swimmer was in an area with no lifeguards. After the drone spotted the swimmer, Leo said, the guards were alerted and “a few of them went in and performed the rescue with none of their safety gear, just with what they had with them.”

“If they weren’t there, we would have landed the drone and gone in ourselves,” Leo said.

The near drownings spotted with the drones inspired the FDNY to consider equipping them with automatic flotation devices.

Similar programs are in place in other states, including Michigan, California and Florida.

It’s not expensive or exotic technology. A company called Restube sells for $120 flotation devices that automatically inflate when they hit the water. The company says the devices can be mounted on drones or simply thrown to struggling swimmers. Restube also sells a $15 kit that recharges the devices after each time they’re used.

The FDNY is also working on a plan to use drones to drop electromagenic shark deterrent devices that will wreak havoc on the short range electrical receptors in the predators’ snouts.

If a sharks are spotted getting too close to swimmers, a drone could drop one of the devices in their path, warding them off, officials said.

The FDNY has just received a shipment of Restubes and shark deterrent devices and is figuring out the best way drones could utilize them, Leo said.

An after-action report about what the drones saw during the summer is nearly complete, FDNY officials said.

“We are going to have an interagency meeting and share the report’s findings on how we can communicate with each other better, faster, and better protect the public,” Leo said. “It’s important to share those messages.”

Another issue the Fire Department hopes the city will address is that many New York beachgoers don’t know how to swim.

Drowning is a leading cause of injury-related death in children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. In 2018, almost 900 U.S. children younger than 20 years died from drowning, according to an academy study. People of color are more likely to drown than their white counterparts, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The Parks Department already offers swimming lessons to city children, which will soon be expanded now that the City Council has approved a bill that will provide free swimming lessons to second graders in all city public schools. About 28% of the city’s children don’t know how to swim, said City Councilwoman Julie Menin (D-Manhattan), the bill’s sponsor.

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