Kiama drone pilot spots swimmer in danger, lifeguards swoop in

NSW lifeguards mainly use drones to spot sharks, and then warn beachgoers about the impending danger - thanks to the drone operated by Kiama surf lifesavers, they were able to sound the alarm on several occasions last summer, and keep swimmers out of harm's way.

A Kiama lifeguard stands on the headland just south of Surf Beach, and flies the drone between the seafood shop at Kiama Harbour and Kendalls Beach for about eight hours each day during school holidays and on weekends - weather permitting.

HANDY TOOL: One of 51 drones recently provided to surf lifesaving clubs across the country. Kiama Surf Lifesaving Club is one of nine South Coast clubs to share a new drone. Picture: Contributed

HANDY TOOL: One of 51 drones recently provided to surf lifesaving clubs across the country. Kiama Surf Lifesaving Club is one of nine South Coast clubs to share a new drone. Picture: Contributed

Kiama lifeguard and drone pilot Matt Burazin said they were grateful for the device in a recent emergency.

"Drones have their uses outside of shark spotting," Mr Burazin said.

"There was an incident a few weekends ago, a rescue at the blowhole, a drone helped us to spot the patient.

"Someone had fallen off the rocks near Black Beach. The drone was the first-responder."

The rescue was carried out successfully.

South Coast Surf Lifesaving has recently added another drone to its arsenal, courtesy of Westpac.

It will monitor a number of beaches - Werri Beach, Kiama Surf Beach, Jones Beach, Mollymook Beach, Culburra Beach, Shellharbour North Beach, Seven Mile Beach, Sussex Inlet-Cudmirrah Beach and Warilla Beach.

Because it is a shared resource, clubs will use the drone for special events.

"What we want to do is use it for branch-related events," Burazin said.

Equipping surf lifesavers with accurate aerial vision and surveillance technology, the drones can be rapidly deployed and relay vision with pin-point accuracy to spot rips and distressed swimmers.

The Westpac Life Saver Rescue Drone program will see the rollout of 51 rescue drones to Surf Life Saving clubs around the nation.

A drone helped us spot a patient. Someone had fallen off the rocks near Black Beach. The drone was the first-responder

Kiama drone pilot Matt Burazin

With more than 4000 rescues and 145,000 preventative actions undertaken by volunteer lifesavers in NSW in the 2017/18 season, the drone program is set to enhance lifesavers' capacity to provide rescue services at more locations along the coastline.

"It's a handy asset to have, I think we should have a drone for each beach," Mr Burazin said.

"The only trouble is on the South Coast, there are a number of beaches in flight zones or restricted air space."

Legally, it is possible to get an exemption if the aircraft weighs less than 100kg.

"Our drones wouldn't be one-tenth of that," Mr Burazin said.

"We are looking at putting in requests to allow us to fly in those zones."

With the drones becoming more commonplace at the beach, lifeguards are having to equip themselves with essential skills to operate them.

On Sunday, a number of lifeguards from South Coast clubs met in Shellharbour to undertake drone training.

There are now seven qualified drone pilots at Kiama Surf Lifesaving Club.

Mr Burazin took part in the training day, helping other lifeguards to pick up the skill.

He said now's the best time of year to swim - the water has been warm - and lifeguards will be around to ensure it's safe to do so.

"The water's glorious," he said.

"For us, every day's the same, we keep our eye on the ocean as best we can, if we spot something we act accordingly."

Drones are still being trialled in NSW - and Mr Burazin hopes for continued state government investment in this program.

Lifeguards who operate the drones regularly report to the state government about the effectiveness of drone technologies, and how the equipment is being put to use.

Surf Life Saving NSW CEO Steven Pearce has welcomed Westpac's recent investment in drones.

"Sadly in NSW coastal waters last season, 39 coastal drowning deaths were recorded, a figure above the ten-year-average of 37," Mr Pearce said.

"The drones will be hugely beneficial to local surf lifesavers to spot potential risks in the water as they happen.

"There is no better time than now to welcome new technologies that can help us protect more people in NSW. We're pleased to be able to continue our relationship with Westpac beyond our work with the Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter Service to support local clubs and communities along the coast through the new drone program."

Meanwhile, Westpac Bank Manager for Shellharbour and Kiama Cassie Sleigh said Westpac is proud to support the evolution of search and rescue services in the local community.

"The program is another way we're helping local communities and supporting our surf lifesavers who work hard to keep our beaches safe during the busy patrol period," Ms Sleigh said.

"This innovative technology will help to spot rips, distressed swimmers and potential hazards."

There are a number of safety rules which apply to people who own drones and fly them for fun.

These include only flying by day, keeping the drone within line of sight, not flying higher than 120 metres, keeping the drone 30 metres away from any people, you must not fly in a way that creates a hazard to other aircraft, so you should keep at least 5.5 km away from airfields, aerodromes and helicopter landing sites, and not flying drones over populous areas including parks or beaches where people are present.