Gold Coast Weekend: How drones are transforming search and rescue

Gold Coast Search and Rescue drones

[Editor’s Note: Little Ripper drones can drop a 4m inflatable device that incorporates a shark repellent and is able to keep several people afloat for hours.]

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When Daniel Trollope first found himself in a wheelchair he thought his life was over.

A devastating few seconds underwater in a fateful scuba diving course meant he would never achieve his dreams.

In an instant, his hopes of becoming a helicopter pilot or a police diver were replaced by fears of lengthy settlement proceedings and a life confined to a chair.

He was 18… and that was 15 years, or rather, a lifetime ago.

The freak case of decompression illness (the bends) left Daniel paralysed from the sternum down.

But now, against all odds, technology and the willpower to be his best has enabled the 34-year-old The Southport School sports administrator to combine his passion of aviation and his dream of saving lives.

Daniel Trollope with wife Holly Nixon is about to become the country’s first paraplegic surf lifesaver — flying drones which drop shark bombs and life rafts. Photo Mark Cranitch

Having started commercial drone flying company Drone Bros with his brother Ben, 32, and father two years ago, Daniel now pilots Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to save lives and prevent tragedies in the surf through the Westpac Little Ripper Australian Surf Life Saving organisation.

“I started flying drones a couple of years ago now,” the Burleigh resident said.

“(My dad, brother and I) all just had this common interest in flying drones and they look pretty cool so we started up a business called Drone Bros.

“And then things just snowballed.

“It’s doing something that I never thought would be a door open to me. I always wanted to fly helicopters but without the use of my legs that was never going to happen.

“You have dark days, everyone does I guess, but to be honest the only thing I’ve ever wanted was to help people.

Daniel Trollope in action. Photo: Steve Holland

“I never thought I’d be able to call myself a surf lifesaver, and I guess I’m still not in the traditional sense, but it feels great to be able to help out.

“Wheelchairs and sand don’t mix and to be part of the surf lifesaving movement is an Australian thing.

“Being that person that can help someone else you would never ever think could be someone in a wheelchair flying on a beach.”

The ‘Little Ripper’ UAVs each cost about $250,000 and are equipped with the ability to aid surf lifesavers in patrols and rescue missions.

The drone has a built-in loudspeaker and the capacity to drop a 4m inflatable device that incorporates a shark repellent and can keep several people afloat for hours.

Daniel, a husband and stepfather of three teenagers, now works fulltime as Little Ripper Rescue’s chief operations officer — a position he has held since early this year.

Since launching, Daniel and Ben have regularly used the Little Ripper in shark patrols in northern NSW.

This followed the shark attack on 17-year-old Cooper Allen who was mauled while surfing at Lighthouse beach in Ballina in September.

A shot from the Little Ripper of the Cudgen Classic last month, Picture: Ben Trollope/The Little Ripper

Daniel said the technology enabled him to live out the dreams he thought were dashed as an 18-year-old.

“While at school … I was in the army cadets,” he said.

“I wanted to fly Black Hawks but they had a height restriction of 6ft and I ended up being 6ft 4in or 6ft 5in so that was out of the question.

“I was training to be a scuba diving instructor and my other I guess wishful job was to join the police force and … I hoped to use that qualification almost like a back door pass into the water police.

“(But then I had) my scuba diving incident in 2001 (and became a complete paraplegic).

“Being in a wheelchair, drones were the next best thing.

“It’s a version of a helicopter that I could do.”

Daniel’s brother Ben used to work as an air crewman for CareFlight, a helicopter rescue association now known as LifeFlight.

A shot from the Little Ripper of the Cudgen Classic last month, Picture: Ben Trollope/The Little Ripper

He said his move to embrace new drone technology was a career decision.

“During the Ballina school holidays, we did 109 flights in nine days for shark surveillance — we were doing surveillance flights every hour,” he said.

“Instead of the … chopper going over every one or twice a day.

“There are a remarkable number of things you can do with a UAV and it’s only growing with the way technology is.

“For me, it was a case of — where do I want to be in the future?

“Do I want to be flying helicopters in the middle of the night.

“Or do I want to be sitting in a vehicle with a UAV in the air with thermal camera and I know I’m safe?”

Daniel still only has half the control over his body that he had when he was a star rugby union player at boarding school TSS.

But ask his little brother Ben and he’ll tell you Daniel is twice the man he was before his accident.

“I guess the whole family’s always had that solid bond and we were all brought even closer again when Daniel had his accident that put him in a chair,” Ben said. “It was life-changing for all of us.

“(But) we just kind of got on with it.

“I take my hat off to him. He’s probably achieved a lot more in a chair than what he might have out of a chair.

“You talk to a lot of guys in chairs and ask them if they had the opportunity to get up and walk, would they?

“A lot of them would knock it back and say — hell no, I’m more successful in my chair than I ever would have been out of it.”

Ben said rather than hampering his ability to fly, his brother’s disability perhaps made him a better drone pilot.

“When Daniel and I were growing up, we always used to say ‘if I get paralysed and lose the use of my legs or whatever, just neck me — I don’t want to live with that sort of disability’.

“(But) you’ve got two options … you let life pass you by and you get depressed … or you do as Daniel’s done.

“Daniel and I work well together. With Daniel in a chair it was very easy for us to go out and work together because ultimately, the best place to fly a drone from is a chair.”


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