The Wrightsville Beach Fire Department is experimenting with drones to help lifeguards with water rescues.
The department is testing equipment that allows drones to carry a lightweight inflatable buoy to swimmers who might be in distress, according to Wrightsville Beach firefighter Sam Proffitt. He said the drone can quickly fly a few hundred yards and drop the device.
"It will inflate once it hits the water. They can grab it and they can either hold it or clip it to them, and then we still have the other end of the rope on the beach. We take that, wrap it around the hitch on the back of a truck, and slowly pull that person into shore," Proffitt said.
Watch a simulated rescue:
The system is meant to assist lifeguards, not replace them, according to Proffitt. But drones could help law enforcement agencies in towns and cities where there are no lifeguards on duty.
"If someone gets in distress in a rip current, a lot of times it falls on a fire department to figure out how they're going to rescue that person," he said. "And you read a lot of stories where the rescuer then a lot of times becomes a victim because they're not trained to perform the rescue, so this could be a great option for them."
Even without the buoys, drones provide an extra set of eyes, Proffitt said. Local law enforcement agencies across the state have been experimenting with drones to help find victims of natural disasters, traffic accidents and other emergencies.
A Wrightsville Beach drone happened to be in the air Tuesday when the pilot spotted a swimmer in trouble and alerted rescuers. Watch them respond:
The swimmer was safely pulled from the water. Rescuers have saved hundreds of people along the coast this summer who were caught in suspected rip currents, but at least three have died.
Proffitt said the drone system is promising, but not perfect. There are tight restrictions on air space and drone regulations that prohibit pilots from flying them outside their line of sight.