World first drone rescue at Lennox Head

Rescued teens ‘weren’t going to get back’

A GROUNDBREAKING drone rescue which saved two teen swimmers who "weren't going to get back" to shore in pounding surf has been heralded as a "game changer" for surf safety.

In a world first rescue friends Monty Greenslade, 16, and Gabe Vidler, 17, were saved from powerful 2.5m surf off Lennox beach via remote control yesterday.

The Alstonville pair were bodysurfing 120m offshore before they began to panic in pounding waves at 10.30am Queensland time.

Monty Greenslade, 16, and Gabe Vidler, 17. Photo: Nicholas McElroy
Monty Greenslade, 16, and Gabe Vidler, 17. Photo: Nicholas McElroy

Monty's girlfriend, who was watching from shore, saw the pair get into trouble and called lifeguards patrolling with state-of-the-art drones nearby who quickly sprung into action.

"It was getting to the point where we were starting to panic," said Monty of the rescue.

Lifeguard Jai Sheridan, 20, and drone pilot Mark Phillips, 44 were able to direct the drone to drop an inflatable device to the teens who were struggling 800m away, about a minute later.

The device inflated when it hit the water allowing the surfers to hold on get into shore.
The device inflated when it hit the water allowing the surfers to hold on get into shore.

The two teens, who considered themselves competent in the surf, said they chose to put on swim fins and battle the big waves rather than swim in the placid Lake Ainsworth nearby.

"The guys have been talking about how awesome the surf has been this week, we just wanted to get into the water," Monty said.

"We were just beginning to realise how big the waves were when the drone came."

The drone is flown by pilots from shore. PIC: Gizelle Ghidella
The drone is flown by pilots from shore. PIC: Gizelle Ghidella

Gabe said the sight of the drone initially made them believer their troubles were even worse.

The machines were originally introduced to spot large sharks, which have been responsible for attacks in the area.

"We were a little confused, I thought it meant there was a shark until the flotation device fell right in front of me," Gabe said.

Monty said the pair were relieved as the waves pushed them to shore with the fluorescent buoyancy aid.

The surfers use the device to get back to shore as the drone watches on.
The surfers use the device to get back to shore as the drone watches on.

"We were surprised, laughing with each other, it was a massive relief, we just kicked our way in," he said.

"The time (the drone) took to get to us was amazing."

Developer of the rescue drone, Westpac Little Ripper Group chief executive Eddie Bennet, said the device had saved two lives and brought in a new era of lifesaving.

"They weren't going to get back by themselves," said Mr Bennet, a former Queensland water police officer.

"We had two people in the surf, in rough dangerous surf, they were physically exhausted, it allowed them to stay afloat and get back to the beach."

The drone with the inflatable device it drops. Pics Adam Head
The drone with the inflatable device it drops. Pics Adam Head

Mr Bennet started to develop the drone technology to spot sharks after bodyboarder Mat Lee was attacked off Ballina in mid 2015.

But he quickly realised its lifesaving capabilities and found the support of Westpac, Surf Life Saving NSW and the NSW Government.

"On day one when they said let's use a drone to fly up the beach, find people in trouble and drop something in the water it was exactly this scenario we talked about," he said.

The drone in action. Pic: Sue Graham
The drone in action. Pic: Sue Graham

"It's taken three years to drop that in the water and know it's going to inflate. It's been an incredibly challenging period."

Mr Bennet said yesterday's rescue was a giant step forward in beach safety.

"It's a game changer for saving lives," he said.

The Westpac Little Ripper lifesaver drone. Picture: Adam Yip.
The Westpac Little Ripper lifesaver drone. Picture: Adam Yip.

"The rescue was a time critical environment, people aren't going to wait for us to get ready (and swim out).

"It can take a lifesaving capability well beyond the traditional flagged area now, people are swimming outside those areas where a lot of drownings occur."

Lifeguard supervisor Jai Sheridan, the 2017 NSW Lifeguard of the Year, said the drone was much faster than any person.

"(It) certainly proved itself today. It is an amazingly efficient piece of lifesaving equipment and a delight to fly," he said.

"I was able to launch it, fly it to the location, and drop the pod all in about one to two minutes. On a normal day that would have taken our lifeguards a few minutes longer to reach the members of the public."

While Queensland and Gold Coast authorities said they we not interested in the technology, NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro and Minister for Primary Industries Niall Blair heaped praise on the drones they had helped to fund.

"It's quite incredible to see that the NSW Government's investment in this technology has

already resulted in two people having their lives saved," Mr Barilaro said.



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