Lifesavers at the famously dangerous Muriwai Beach will trial the use of drones to help save lives this summer.

Hi-tech help from above will be on its way this summer for people in trouble on New Zealand beaches.

Surf lifesavers are testing drones to provide an eye in the sky to dramatically cut rescue times and keep lifeguards safer in stormy seas. Heavy duty models may be able to drop flotation devices to swimmers in distress.

"Launching a drone is a two to three-minute exercise, launching a boat and a callout can be 10 or 12. And that can be the difference between life and death," said former Muriwai Volunteer Lifeguard Service president Tim Jago.


The Muriwai club expects to have two drones operating aerial searches at the Auckland west coast beach this summer in a pilot for a national programme. Lifeguards will be trained to use them there and at other clubs.

"You're going to see this summer experimenting with dropping flotation devices out, and seeing how that works," said Jago, who is heading the drone project.

The initiative arose after a kayaker drowned. Sustained efforts by boat crews to find him and then recover his body were unsuccessful until a helicopter joined the search.

"That's what really rammed home to us the need to have that instant eye in the sky," Jago said.

The comparative low cost of drones meant they could be readily employed at multiple locations.

"You've got a $4000 or $5000 kit that costs 20 cents an hour to be able to run when you charge the batteries, as opposed to half a million dollars' worth of helicopter costing several thousand dollars an hour and desperately needed elsewhere."

Aerial search drones were "easy to fly and you can launch out of a backpack and you can be airborne within two minutes and sending video footage back to base".

The Muriwai club is in an exchange programme with Surf Life Saving Central Coast in Australia, which has an accredited surf lifesaving drone team. Drones had been used across the Tasman to help rescues on sea and land.

Jago said he had been told how a drone was flown to people caught in a rip, gave them instructions through a loudspeaker system, and hovered over them while providing video footage to guide a jet ski rescue crew to pick them up.

An inexpensive infra-red camera mounted to a drone was able to find a young person in a large area of scrub at a wilderness park within 20 minutes.

Jago expected drones would also "reduce the risk to lifeguards when having to search in truly challenging conditions - enormous or relentless surf, around rocks, and in isolated places.

"A little like the police send in dogs, or robots for explosive devices, we can deploy the drone into very dangerous situations where we will only send lifeguards if we can verify a person is alive and in need of rescue."

Police, fire, ambulance, land search and rescue, and the coastguard were being kept informed of developments in the Muriwai club's investigations into the use of drones for search and rescue, Jago said.

The Muriwai club's development work on the use of drones to help rescue swimmers last night saw them win them an Innovation award at the 2017 Surf Life Saving Northern Region Awards of Excellence.

This area is responsible for many of Muriwai's most challenging rescues when surf is big. Photo / Chris McLennan
This area is responsible for many of Muriwai's most challenging rescues when surf is big. Photo / Chris McLennan

Jago said he was looking forward to "when we've got it fully in service and we know that it's actually saving lives".

Trio of rescues wins top award

A triple lifesaving feat by a group of heroic lifeguards has won them a top surf rescue award.

The Karioitahi lifeguards responded to three after-hours emergencies in a row on Auckland's southwest coast - plucking a swimmer who lost consciousness from the sea, finding two beachgoers in large surf, and tending to a person badly injured in a head-on motorbike crash.

Their valiant deeds have won Surf Life Saving Kariaotahi the Rescue of the Year Award at the 2017 Surf Life Saving Northern Region Awards of Excellence last night.

Surf Life Saving Northern Region chief executive Matt Williams said the lifeguards' quick thinking, preparedness and teamwork made the difference.

"This was a fantastic effort at the end of a long, busy day, and it demonstrates the challenges our volunteers face. Emergencies don't just happen during patrolled hours and it's not just about helping people out of trouble in the water."

About 6pm on January 30, after patrols had stopped, a swimmer got into difficulty. The victim was taken ashore unconscious and given oxygen until medical support arrived.

Then lifeguards were told two beachgoers were missing, possibly in large surf in poor visibility given a setting sun. The pair were found safe after a land and sea search.

The lifeguards were then called to a motorcycle crash that left a person with suspected spinal and pelvic injuries and a badly broken leg. They stabilised her and transported her to their clubrooms until an ambulance arrived.

Nineteen Karioitahi club members were involved in the feat, including former Maori All Black rep Jim Coe.