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We will require a larger drone: The technology ensuring the safety of swimmers at a New York beach

In recent years, the coastal region of Long Island, New York, has experienced an increase in temperature and improved water quality, resulting in the migration of larger quantities of bait fish to this area. Consequently, this ecological shift has attracted predatory species, such as sharks, which rely on these bait fish as a food source. In certain respects, it can be regarded as a positive indication for the environment. However, the situation varies for individuals engaged in swimming, surfing, and visiting the beach.

Safety officials at a beach in New York are increasing the utilization of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), often known as drones, in an effort to proactively mitigate the risk of hazardous encounters between individuals and sharks.

The utilization of technology for water surveillance is being employed by lifeguards and New York State Park Police officers stationed at Jones Beach, a state park spanning 6.5 miles along the Southern coast of Long Island, which attracts approximately six million visitors annually. In the event of detecting sharks or atypical marine life behavior, individuals have the capacity to alert swimmers, advising them to remain ashore.

The implementation of the tracking program commenced in 2017; nevertheless, it has acquired heightened significance in light of a recent surge in shark attacks at New York beaches during the current summer season. Although the probability of encountering a shark attack remains very low, it is worth noting that a recent incident occurred at Rockaway Beach in Queens, resulting in the hospitalization of a 65-year-old lady who was bitten by a shark. On the subsequent day, the lifeguards stationed at Jones Beach took the precautionary measure of closing the aquatic area on three separate occasions due to reported sightings of sharks, with two of these sightings being facilitated through the utilization of unmanned aerial vehicles.

“I can’t offer a firm forecast on how frequently shark attacks or bites will occur in the future. However, I can provide insight that an increase in the deployment of drones in the airspace heightens the probability of observing these creatures in their indigenous environment,” stated Park Police Captain Rishi Basdeo in a previous month, preceding the most recent attack (which transpired at a distinct beach from the location where his team conducts surveillance). For him, the value of his warnings lay in their own right.

The New York State Park Police now employs a fleet of 19 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the vicinity of Jones Beach. These UAVs are primarily utilized by lifeguards, with additional support from police who can conduct more advanced surveillance through a mobile command center that traverses the beach. This enhanced monitoring system is activated in response to the detection of any anomalous activities or objects in the water. Within the confines of the command center van, law enforcement personnel have the capability to observe a real-time transmission of aerial drone imagery on a television monitor, enabling them to make informed decisions regarding the necessity of evacuating those engaged in swimming activities.

Basdeo stated that employing a drone allows for an exceptional vantage point, providing a comprehensive and up-to-date aerial perspective of the activities transpiring on the canal. Furthermore, he mentioned that when a shark is detected within a proximity of 400 feet from the shoreline, authorities contemplate the possibility of implementing water closures. When a shark is in close proximity to the swimming area, or even before schools of fish arrive, the choice to take action is already being made… Moreover, the lifeguards will not only prohibit individuals from swimming but also effectively assist them in exiting the water in a secure manner.

During the recent demonstration of the drone tracking program by Park Police officers, the cameras detected a limited number of skate fish in close proximity to the shoreline. However, the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), equipped with high-resolution cameras capable of penetrating the water’s surface from an altitude of approximately 25 feet, have already captured video evidence of solitary sharks as well as their predatory behavior towards sizable fish populations.

According to Basdeo, the cost of operating the program is relatively high. Even the less advanced drone kits employed by lifeguards for routine monitoring purposes have an approximate price of $6,000 per unit and necessitate operators who are knowledgeable in adhering in accordance with FAA rules and guidelines. However, he asserts that the benefits of mitigating safety hazards for individuals who frequent the beach outweigh any potential drawbacks. In addition, he asserted, “The expense is indeed lesser in comparison to the act of contacting a police helicopter.”

Furthermore, this system possesses applications that extend beyond the mere task of locating sharks. The drones has the capability to enhance their functionality through the integration of an infrared camera, spotlights, and speakers. These additional features serve to enhance their effectiveness in search and rescue operations. Furthermore, the drones have the potential to swiftly deliver a life preserver to a stranded swimmer, perhaps surpassing the response time of a lifeguard.

According to Basdeo, in the event of a nocturnal missing person complaint, alternative measures can be taken instead of relying solely on a police helicopter. Specifically, drones can be deployed with infrared technology integrated into their cameras, enabling visibility in low-light conditions. Half a decade ago, our agency had the capacity to utilize drones. However, presently, this capability is becoming increasingly prevalent and gaining popularity.

Additionally, Basdeo emphasized that the utilization of drones is restricted to specific safety-related purposes.

We adhere to stringent protocols and regulations when piloting and managing these unmanned aerial vehicles. The utilization of this technology does not encompass the surveillance of the general populace. According to Basdeo, the purpose of its utilization is to ensure their safety. The avoidance of flying over big gatherings of individuals is a practice that we adhere to, or at least make an effort to adhere to. According to the speaker, there exist specific emergency lanes on the beach that are utilized by operators to guide the drones towards the ocean, particularly in areas with low population density.

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