HELPER, the life-saving drone

A life-saving drone? The HELPER (Human Environment and Life Protection Emergency Response) Drone is not science fiction but the brainchild of Dr Fabien Farge and brothers Anthony and David Gavend that was tested last summer in Biscarosse on France’s Atlantic coast. Rented for a symbolic euro by the Biscarosse municipality, responsible like all other French coastal towns for providing the means to save lives at sea in their zone, HELPER saved three lives. It has drawn the attention of some of France’s elite security forces and emergency responders who think they might be able to make good use of it too.

This summer three drones will be rented, for a symbolic euro each, to the municipalities of Biscarosse, Messanges and Lacanau, covering the entire length of the French Atlantic coast from north of Bordeaux to the Spanish border. A scientific study on their use will be undertaken simultaneously, Farge told FOB.

Anthony Gavent (left) and Fabien Farge with the HELPER drone, possibly the world’s only bright pink RPAS (remotely piloted air system)! (photo credit: Christina Mackenzie)

Farge, who is not only an emergency response doctor but a keen surfer, explained that the idea came to him in the face of the four drownings a day that occur in France in summer, notably in the south-west where even experienced swimmers and surfers get caught by the strong undertow. He thought it would be faster to fly above the waves to reach somebody in difficulty than it is to go through them “and every second counts when someone is drowning.’

HELPER was designed by the Gavend brothers specifically for life-saving purposes. Flying to the victim at a speed of 90 kph, it can carry a payload of 1.5kg, generally consisting of a camera, a bottle of pure oxygen and an automatically inflating life jacket, designed for the team by Zodiac Safety Aerospace. The jacket contains a radio and a GPS chip. “The radio allows the life guards to talk to the victim, calm him down, tell him how to use the oxygen and get information from him concerning his state,” Farge explained, “whilst the GPS chip gives the life guards the victim’s precise location.” He said the oxygen allows the victim to stabilise in stage 2 of drowning (starting to swallow water) for the time it takes the life guards to reach him, rather than slipping into stage 3 (water in the lungs) or stage 4 (unconsciousness). In stage 1 the victim is exhausted and starts to panic (aquastress, the professionals call it).

Gavin and Farge with the automatically inflating life jacket designed for them by Zodiac Safety Aerospace (photo credit: Christina Mackenzie)

The drone can remain airborne for 12 minutes, considerably longer than it generally takes the life guards to reach the victim.

The three partners put €100,000 of their own money into the project and were lent another €100,000 by the Crédit Agricole Pyrénées Gascogne bank. Anthony Gavend said the drone itself costs €12,000 to which a further €4,000 must be added to train the pilot. But the start-up is looking for another €300,000 to be able to commercialise their prize-winning product (it won the 2016 Concours Lepine, the French “new inventions” competition) and export it. Anthony Gavend told FOB that there is considerable interest for their product in Spain (“they keep asking when they can have it” he told us) as well as interest from Portugal, Brazil and Italy… and a number of companies who have offshore installations where the drone can be used to drop off emergency medical equipment.


Apologies: the video below is only in French