Image of a red rescue drone

Lifeguards on more than 20 beaches in Spain use drones like this one.

Gavin Rodgers/Alamy Stock Photo

Drones to the Rescue

Drones are soaring to new heights—and saving lives—around the world.

Last summer, a trip to the beach took a terrifying turn for a teen in Europe. The 14-year-old boy had gone swimming off the coast of Valencia, Spain. Suddenly, he was struggling to stay afloat as the waves crashed down on him.

Within seconds, lifeguards saw that the boy was in trouble. But they didn’t immediately jump into the water. Instead, they used something that could reach the teen much faster: a drone. 

A pilot on the ground quickly steered the remote-controlled flying machine over the boy and released a life vest. The teen grabbed on and managed to stay afloat until lifeguards arrived to bring him to shore. He was taken to a nearby hospital for treatment and sent home the next day.

That dramatic rescue is just one example of the important role drones can play during emergency situations. From battling wildfires to delivering medicine, drones are helping to save lives worldwide.

Flying Robots at Work

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are aircraft with no crew or passengers on board. They are often equipped with cameras to give their operators a bird’s-eye view of the ground below. Some drones, like those used by the U.S. military, are as big as airplanes and can weigh as much as 55,000 pounds. Others are small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.

UAVs are used in many ways. Filmmakers use drones to shoot scenes from high overhead, and farmers use them to monitor the health of their crops. For less than $20, you can buy a drone and fly it around your backyard.

Courtesy of Jesse Juchtzer, Desert Research Institute/U.S. Forest Service

A drone flies into action during a wildfire in Utah.

Help From Up High

Drones are also essential tools for emergency responders. After a hurricane or flood, for example, drones have been used to spot survivors so rescue crews know exactly where to find them. 

Drones are useful when it comes to fighting wildfires too, says Justin Baxter. He works for the U.S. Forest Service. Drone operators can steer UAVs over fast-moving blazes to determine where they might spread. That helps firefighters go where they’re most needed and helps them decide whether local residents need to be evacuated.

“Drones give firefighters on the ground a better understanding of what the fire is doing,” Baxter explains. “That leads to better and quicker decision-making.”

Plus, these drones have infrared sensors that help firefighters “see” at night or in smoke-filled areas where it’s not safe to send in helicopters with human pilots.


A health-care worker loads a VillageReach drone with medical supplies.

Saving Lives

UAVs also make it possible for people in hard-to-reach places to get vaccines and medical supplies. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country in Africa, an organization called VillageReach uses drones to deliver medicine. The country’s thick forests and rough terrain make traveling over land difficult. Delivering medicine by car or bicycle can take up to 12 hours. But thanks to drones, health centers can now receive lifesaving supplies in as little as 20 minutes.

“Now we are able to send whatever they need whenever they need it,” says Olivier Defawe of VillageReach. “Drones are a game changer.”

1. Based on the article, what do all drones have in common?

2. Why does Olivier Defawe of VillageReach call drones a “game changer”?

3. What is the purpose of the sidebar, “Meet SnotBot”?

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