Little Ripper Rescue: Behind the Scenes

On 18 January 2018, Australian lifeguards at Lennox Head, New South Wales (NSW), carried out the world’s first drone rescue. The drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), took only a few seconds to rescue two distressed swimmers by way of dropping inflatable rescue pods in what is said to be the first recorded instance of a drone deploying a Search and Rescue (SAR) payload in an actual emergency. It was sheer coincidence that the drone happened to be at Lennox Head that day for a local media launch as Jai Sheridan, 2017 Lifeguard of the Year, was demonstrating the UAV’s capabilities.
Service progression
The implementation of UAVs into the Surf Life Saving NSW (SLSNSW) operation is not something that happened by chance. The organisation’s three-year organisational strategic goals refer to much greater use of technology and innovation in surf lifesaving operations, so it could be said that it was inevitable that drones would be introduced into beach operations. However, it is not something that just simply occurred, but is rather the outcome of a disciplined approach, a great deal of trial and error, and a strategy of attempting to achieve specified outcomes. 
In the preceding two years before the rescue, UAVs from different manufacturers were tried and tested with varying degrees of success – and failure. However, as UAV technology has evolved and improved, so too has reliability, robustness and ease of use – all essential factors to consider when implementing a solution that is required to save lives, and where every second counts. Whilst The Little Ripper rescue drone underwent extensive development and various prototype iterations before the version responsible for effecting the world’s first drone rescue was released for trials into the Surf Life Saving NSW UAV programme, it has wider expectations for UAVs.   
Finding the right solution
Kelvin Morton, Air Boss at DroneAdvantage Australia and Surf Life Saving NSW UAV Project Manager, explained: “The Little Ripper UAV is one component of a wider scope to assess the capabilities that UAVs have to offer. Whilst it was successfully able to save the lives of the two teenage boys from drowning in just a few seconds, there are other aspects of surf lifesaving operations for which the current version of The Little Ripper may not be the most appropriate to respond with. For example, there are specific requirements when searching for missing persons or trying to locate a body in bad weather for which The Little Ripper’s effectiveness is reduced.” SLSNSW is this looking at what improvements can be made to The Little Ripper or consider other UAVs that might be a better fit for those particular scenarios. Morton added: “I take the view that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to SAR when it comes to UAVs, but rather, you pick the best tool to do the job.”
An important consideration to keep in mind is that Surf Life Saving NSW has a UAV solution – with the operative word being ‘solution’ – and The Little Ripper UAV is a component which makes up part of the UAV rescue solution. UAV type, training, operating procedures and support are other critical areas that have to be tested, so Surf Life Saving NSW emphasises the need to define requirements up front before starting to identify a UAV solution.
“The Little Ripper is a nickname for a DJI M600 Pro drone, which is outfitted with a high-definition zoom camera, siren, and a release mechanism which holds two water-activated SOS Marine Rescue Pod (ULB) which inflate to 6.5 feet in length. But there are other components that make up the UAV solution. As part of our trial, we are also evaluating machine learning AI Shark Spotting algorithms, power generators, battery capacity, speed chargers, data collection management tools, UAV training content and assessment criteria, scenario based operational procedures, UAV support requirements and a lot more,” said Morton.
It is extremely important that requirements are properly and fully identified up front, since they will drive a solution and inform test case scenarios to evaluate against. “Only then,” Morton continued, “can you properly make an assessment as to whether you have the right solution that meets your needs. Some examples of requirements would be things like the UAV must have a proven history of less than 0.5 per cent power failure rate or 0.1 per cent motor failure rate; the UAV must have autopilot capability; and it must provide real-time video feed or thermal images to police and rescue units. 
“UAV requirements specify what needs to be achieved by the entire UAV solution. The risk of not having clearly defined and prioritised UAV requirements in place prior to identifying and implementing a UAV solution will manifest in an initiative delivering a solution which is not fit for purpose. This dramatically increases the risk of failure through not having the required UAVs, equipment, operational processes, training, support or organisational structure to meet business needs. A UAV solution should be the focus, rather than just the UAV. There is no point in deploying a state-of-the-art UAV designed to save drowning swimmers by dropping a self-inflating pod if the pilot dropping the pod from the UAV cannot consistently drop it so that it hits the water close enough for the swimmer to grab on to.”
Getting it right first time
In speaking specifically about UAV platforms, Morton urged potential users of SAR drones to carefully consider their needs before choosing a definite product: “Setting your sights on a specific UAV from the outset is not something I would recommend. The technology is expensive and changes so fast. Each operational environment is also different. What’s most important is that you have a structured approach to identifying and implementing a UAV solution and that should always start with ensuring that requirements have been defined and you assess any UAV solution against them.”  
No other surf lifesaving organisation anywhere in the world is implementing a UAV solution close to the size and scale as Surf Life Saving NSW. Because of this, there are no other sources they can refer to for any for lessons learned to guide their journey. It is for these reasons that this article is meant to give insight into the story and background behind the rescue such that other organisations can focus their energies from lessons learned by Surf Life Saving NSW.
The SLSNSW trials continue through 28 April, at which time a comprehensive review will be conducted.