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Game of drones

Game of drones

Drones have emerged in the physical security space as a reliable video surveillance tool, but New York City (NYC) Mayor Eric Adams is traveling uncharted waters, so to speak, in how he wants to utilize drones during the summer months.

As a NYC resident, I have read numerous articles on how there’s a lifeguard shortage at area beaches this summer. Now, with Memorial Day weekend in the rearview mirror and summer unofficially underway, Mayor Adams has come up with a game plan to overcome the lack of lifeguards at city beaches, an idea that has me crying, “SOS.”

Adams, a known “techie,” is working with the NYC Police Department (NYPD), NYC Fire Department (FDNY), NYC Parks Department and other agencies to bring remote-controlled drones equipped with flotation devices to rescue swimmers in distress during the summer months.

Last week, the Parks Department noted that 230 lifeguards – about the same amount as last year – would man the nearly 14 miles of city beaches, a far cry from the 600 needed for the beaches to be fully staffed – an alarming number, to say the least.

The idea of using remote-controlled drones at city beaches began last year as they were deployed to scan the waters for sharks that might be approaching the shoreline (cue the “Jaws’ theme). Yes, six sharks were spotted, but none came close to the shoreline, thankfully.

But those on drone patrol noticed a greater and more common danger – NYC beachgoers struggled quite frequently in the water. Hence, the idea to equip drones with automatic flotation devices for swimmers in distress.

In February, Mayor Adams announced the pilot program to have drones equipped with flotation devices after the near drownings witnessed last summer,

“They’re going to start out with Coney Island, and they’re going to grow from there,” Adams said at the time. “I think it can be a great addition to saving the lives of those that we lose over the summer.”

It is important to note that the drones will not be replacing lifeguards, but rather be used to assist them. Still, I have to play Debbie Downer with this whole idea, especially with people’s lives at stake. 

First, there is always the risk of drones malfunctioning, and if that happens in an area where lifeguards are not immediately available, those flotation devices may not get to those swimmers in distress, and then we would have a tragedy on our hands. 

Let’s not forget that drones may be limited in their ability to operate in certain weather conditions such as strong winds or heavy rain, and it is fair to say that there are daredevil swimmers who bravely, and stupidly, defy logic in navigating the dangerous waters during inclement weather.

And one more thing I want to throw in – the idea of drones flying over large swaths of beachgoers is itself a danger, especially if technological issues arise. 

City officials pointed out last week that over the past two years, seven people have drowned off New York’s beaches, a reduction from 21 fatalities in 2021 alone. They expect that drones will further reduce those numbers while also alleviating concerns about shark sightings.

NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Operations Kaz Daughtry seemed confident in the drones’ ability to prevent drownings, stating, “Thanks to the NYC Mayor and NYPD, we are embracing technology that could save lives. This summer, we will be utilizing drones that can deploy a flotation device to swimmers in distress. We can also use these drones to communicate with the swimmer in distress while help is on the way. Game changing. Lifesaving.”

I’ll add two more words – head scratching.



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