Charlestown – On a dreary but damp Friday morning, 20-year-old beach manager Matt Power stood along the sand at Blue Shutters Town Beach as he sought to determine if conditions were safe to allow the public to start swimming.
Few visitors reported possible marine life in the water, so Power grabbed a protective bag containing one of Charlestown’s newest parks and recreation management gadgets: a DJI Mavic 3 drone camera.
In just a few minutes, Power set the drone on a flat panel and powered the video control panel system a bit larger than the Nintendo Switch Lite. Soon, beachgoers and lifeguards watched as he steered the drone steadily over the water and paused, leaving the drone balanced with the camera in the direction of the water.
“I can see right through it,” Bauer said, his eyes still locked onto the monitor screen as he zoomed in, using a special lens to get rid of glare and see beyond the surface. “everything is clear.”
It was a simple use of the new equipment, but it was one of the many ways that drones became a daily part of operations on Charlestown’s beaches, an effort that provides new ways to improve safety and enhance services. The program was implemented in late 2021, and entertainment director Vicki Hilton and GIS coordinator Stephen McCandless said this week that the potential uses are nearly endless.
The concept was first developed in 2015 and was brought to the city’s attention and accepted by the Charlestown Budget Committee the previous fiscal year. Led by McCandless with the full support of Hilton, the committee approved the program and began efforts last July to implement it.
The city currently has two drones with cameras ready to be recorded, the Mavic 2 and Mavic 3, and has ordered two additional units. McCandless, who also serves as a volunteer community firefighter, is an FAA-certified trained pilot as are Bauer and Connor Montague, who both received their licenses last September. Staff members Luke Sloam and Lucas Segura are also currently taking certification courses.
Equipment can be a little pricey up front—each drone sells for an average of $2,000 to $3,000, not including command modules or additional networking equipment—and FAA licensing course costs and fees are currently an additional $300 per person. McCandless said the license should be renewed every two years, while the equipment is expected to last about five years.
Training includes an online class and course work, followed by a certification exam. The course focuses on aerospace and flight safety components, and certification requires all drone pilots to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the same safety protocols that commercial pilots must adhere to.
“It’s a fairly intense course,” he said. “Our goal is to get to a point where we will have four trained personnel, so that we can respond quickly to either of the two beaches of the town.”
When it comes to beach patrols, safety remains the lifeguards’ top priority. Hilton said the job includes making sure there are no hazards on land or in the water, making sure everyone follows the rules and stays safe, and responds in the event of a medical emergency.
She said the drone could help with every aspect of the job, from general surveys to search and rescue missions.
“One of the biggest concerns we hear about is sharks,” Hilton said. “With a drone, we can send a camera up to see what’s next and determine if the fin is as harmless as a sunfish or something else.”
Hilton admits that having a “shark-watching” camera is an interesting use, but it’s not a good enough justification for the program. Fortunately, drones do a little more than that.
Both Hilton and McCandless said that drones can be a formidable tool when it comes to search and rescue efforts, both on land and in the water. If there is concern about a swimmer’s loss, trained personnel can use a drone to search for potential victims, potentially even dropping an inflatable life preserver in appropriate conditions.
On the ground in the event of the loss of a child, for example, the drone program would also allow for rapid response that could not be achieved using manpower alone.
“Let’s say you were looking for a younger kid in a yellow shirt. We could make two drones, one at the end of each beach, and have them start outside and work toward the middle.” “Within minutes, we can scan every inch from one end of the beach to the other, and we can zoom in on any part that baby might be in.”
In other cases, the drone can also be used to help identify and address problems within parking lots or with local area traffic as well.
Both Hilton and McCandless said that since the program was implemented, the city has also received a lot of interest and inquiries from surrounding communities. Public responders in Hopkinton and Richmond reached out to express interest in learning more, and Block Island has relied on McCandless for guidance as officials there consider the possibility of using drones.
Locally, McCandless said he believes the town could benefit from maintaining the drone program with four employees each summer. For the community, he doesn’t see the need for the program to be much larger yet.
“I think we have a sustainable and beneficial program here that we can maintain at the lowest cost per year,” he said with a smile.
“The next step will be to convince the budget committee, and we’re already working on that,” Hilton joked.