Spotting dangerous rip currents with Sky Drone 12

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NARRAGANSETT, R.I. (WPRI) — Rip currents can pose a serious threat to swimmers and to the untrained eye, they can be difficult to spot, especially from the ground.

We flew Sky Drone 12 over Scarborough Beach in Narragansett two times, approximately a week apart. Our first visit to the beach was on a hazy, hot and humid day, but the water was fairly calm with no rip currents.

Flying 300 to 400 feet above the beach, we saw hundreds of people on the sand and in the blue, almost Caribbean-like ocean water.

Lifeguards are constantly monitoring people on the beach and in the water. At the same time, they’re patrolling the ocean conditions, keeping a close eye out for rip currents. Mark Liptak, a lifeguard captain at Scarborough Beach, said rip currents form when the water comes in, hits a sandbar, pier or rocks. The water has nowhere to go, so it has to go out and typically channels perpendicular to the shore, back out to sea.

“It’s kind of bubbling up, little white channel basically moving out, perpendicular to the shore,” Liptak said. “Sometimes they move laterally. All depends on the swell and current.”

Passing storms like hurricanes and nor’easters or persistent winds can create stronger rip currents.

Safety Guide: Beaches and Rip Currents »

Lifeguards undergo specialized training to spot rip currents and Liptak said it’s easier to see them with polarized sunglasses, which most of the guards at his beach wear.

There is another way to see them, though, according to Liptak, who is in his fifth year guarding the beach.

“A higher vantage point,” he said. “Basically, you can see them forming out at either ends of the beach. We determine if we’re gonna put more guards down there, watch for the areas more carefully and whatnot.”

After our first visit to Scarborough Beach, we waited for a good day do return to get a higher vantage point with Sky Drone 12. A week later, persistent southerly winds created large waves south of Rhode Island and the surf ranged from three to six feet. A High Surf Advisory was posted by the National Weather Service and several water rescues were made that day at Scarborough Beach, all because of rip currents.

We were able to spot many rip currents from the air, including the one below. Notice the sandy color to the water; that’s the current bringing the sand back out to the ocean. The foam is another tip-off that a rip current is present.

“Sometimes we’ve seen [swimmers] go out 200 yards,” Liptak said. “Sometimes they’re small, suck people out maybe 30 yards out. Sometimes they carry people out 200 yards and by the time that we get them, they’re already out there, halfway to the rock out there.”

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If you’re caught in a rip current, the best way to get out of it is to swim parallel to shore, not against the current. Swimming against the current can exhaust even an experienced swimmer.

Drones have many uses and in the future they could be used at beaches to spot rip currents and determine their strength. On some beaches, drones are being used to spot other dangers such as sharks.

“I see a pretty good application for them,” Liptak said, when asked if he would like to have one to use on his beach.

Know Before You Go: Rip Current and Beach SafetyLatest 7-Day Forecast | Pinpoint Weather Blog | Live Pinpoint Doppler 12 Radar | Threat Tracker | Pinpoint Traffic | WPRI.com Flight Tracker | Closings & Delays | Download: Pinpoint Weather App | Download: Eyewitness News App | Sign Up: Weather Alerts