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Australia to Use Military Drones to Protect Ocean Swimmers

  • Phil Mercer

Unmanned drones are to patrol Australian beaches to help protect swimmers against dangerous currents. It's the first time anywhere in the world that this type of military hardware has been used by surf rescue teams. The technology will be tested off the Queensland coast.

The robotic aircraft has a wingspan of only a meter and weighs just 1kg. It is fitted with cameras that relay real-time video to computers to allow lifesavers to monitor remote Australian beaches from their desks.

The technology was designed for use in combat zones but now will help protect swimmers, surfers and fishermen off the coast of Queensland.

The drones will be deployed as part of a trial over Stradbroke Island, east of Brisbane. Emergency crews say they could also them find missing bushwalkers, locate wild fires and track sharks.

Mark Xavier, the chief pilot with V-TOL Aerospace, the company that’s developed the tiny planes, says they will improve maritime surveillance.

"It's more about having eyes in more places, with the ability to move those eyes around, which then can coordinate, hopefully a more rapid response when it comes to the other assets which can actually physically go out there and coordinate a rescue. That particular camera can be used for identifying things on the ground as well as in the air. And it's basically the most, how would you say, the most simplistic approach to flying a camera around in the air," he said.

The drone could cover about 36 sq km each hour and would fly lower than conventional aircraft. In the future, it could be adapted for use as a flotation device and be dropped into the water to help a swimmer struggling in the surf.

The trial of this military-inspired technology will begin in Queensland in April. Australia is the sixth largest country in the world. Its mainland has a coastline stretching for more than 35,000 kms.

Between July 2010 and 30th June 2011, 315 people drowned in Australian waterways, including rivers and beaches, the highest number since 2003. The authorities say that men are three and a half times more likely to drown than women, with men aged 18-34 years being the most at risk of drowning.

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