San Mateo County

Help From Above: Drones Capable of Dropping Life Jackets During Water Rescues

The San Mateo County Sheriff's Office has more than a half-dozen drones designed to deliver life jackets to anyone struggling in the water

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These drones aren't buzzing around capturing breathtaking footage at the beach. They're ready to drop a life-saving device to people in need.

The San Mateo County Sheriff's Office announced this week that it has a fleet of drones that can carry and then drop life jackets to anyone struggling to stay afloat in the water.

"We're super excited to have this program to be able to help people in the community," sheriff's office spokesperson Rosemerry Blankswade said.

Finding fast and efficient ways to save people out in the water, especially the chilly and powerful Pacific Ocean, has become a priority for the Peninsula agency. In 2019 and 2020, the number of water rescues that the sheriff's office responded to doubled compared to previous years, Blankswade said. In January 2021 alone, there were two drownings.

"At the beginning of the year when we had two of those fatal drownings, we really kind of stepped up our efforts as far as research and getting those tools in place sooner than later," Blankswade said.

Once they arrive on scene, the agency's drone pilots can get the unmanned vehicles into the air in a matter of minutes.

"The way that I've seen our drone operators, our pilots operate is those guys can get them up fairly quickly if there's no complications," Blankswade said. "They just take the box out, throw it on the hood, take the controller out, hook up their iPad, and then push power on both and they're up."

The sheriff's office shared a video from a training session showing the drones zip away from the shoreline and drop life jackets to people in the water. During that session, the drones were about 15 to 25 feet above the water, Blankswade said. While some life jacket drops landed right on target, others were blown a bit off course. Dialing in the drop will come with practice.

"Depth perception is really hard," Blankswade said. "I think they just err on the side of caution and stay a little bit higher. But, ideally, we would like to get a lot more practice in trying to kind of get the life jacket directly to the person."

Blankswade said, as of now, she believes the drones haven't been used in an actual rescue, but she said the team of eight pilots is ready for when the moment comes.

"We have strategically placed pilots in every bureau, every jurisdiction that the sheriff's office has," she said.

The sheriff's office's drone program has been in place for about a year now, with drones specifically on the coast for only a couple months, Blankswade said. While researching how other agencies use their drones in the field, the department came across a volunteer firefighter who was tinkering with the life jacket deployment idea.

Since then, the sheriff's office has adopted it and been focused on training, training and more training.

The goal is to add even more drones and pilots to the force in the near future.

"Given the recent past and the popularity of all the beaches with COVID and everything, I think that we're very happy to have this tool available anytime somebody is in need," Blankswade said.

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