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Sea Tow captains put drones to work

Sea Tow Central Connecticut owner Tom Kehlenbach pilots his DJI Phantom 4 from aboard a vessel. Kehlenbach uses the drone to make work safer and more efficient for himself and his crew.

Sea Tow Central Connecticut owner Tom Kehlenbach pilots his DJI Phantom 4 from aboard a vessel. Kehlenbach uses the drone to make work safer and more efficient for himself and his crew.

Sea Tow captains around the country are using drones to make day-to-day operations safer and easier.

At Sea Tow Central Connecticut, Capt. Tom Kehlenbach has been using his DJI Phantom 4 for about three years. He began using the drone when he was helping Capt. Javier Menendez with a large salvage job in Puerto Rico.

“We were out there working when all of a sudden I heard this buzzing noise behind me and noticed one of Javier’s guys was using a drone to get some shots of the work we were doing,” Kehlenbach said, according to a statement. “After we were done, he showed me the footage and I thought, ‘This is fantastic.’ As soon as I got back home, I ordered one.”

Kehlenbach since has used a drone on more than a dozen jobs. There is a sharp learning curve involved, but he said the technology has made many jobs safer and more efficient for him and his crew.

“Using the drone really helps to reduce the liability involved with a job,” he said. “If you have time and the weather permits, the drone’s aerial perspective lets you figure out how to get a grounded boat out to deeper water without putting divers in the water. You can’t put a price on that.”

Kehlenbach has used his drone to survey most of Sea Tow Central Connecticut’s service area, allowing his crews to familiarize themselves with obstructions in the water.

He also has used the drone as an educational tool. During flare and other safety demonstrations, the bird’s-eye view produces a unique perspective that helps to enhance the learning experience by showing boaters what it looks like from a view other than their own.

Capt. Jon Gridley, owner of four Georgia Sea Tow franchises, has seen similar benefits after buying his first drone earlier this year.

After a storm left nearly three dozen boats — as well as the dock they were moored to — upside down, Gridley purchased a Parrot Bebop 2 drone that allowed him to get a new perspective on what he was dealing with. He even spotted two boats that were previously unaccounted for, bringing the total to 35 vessels in need of recovery.

Gridley has since used the drone in about a dozen salvage and recovery operations. Additionally, the aerial footage helps Sea Tow’s insurance company customers, adjusters and surveyors better evaluate the extent of damage and recovery/cleanup challenges, estimate costs and otherwise document the scene, which saves time and travel because the footage can be reviewed from remote office locations.

“It allows me to better plan for a job,” Gridley said. “It’s just an extra tool to make our jobs not only safer, but more effective and more efficient.”

Gridley said he knows of at least a handful of other captains using the technology and believes it will eventually play a key role in the industry.

The Coast Guard recently moved to adopt the continually expanding technology. By the end of the year, the service plans to submit a proposal to purchase its own fleet of drones to help guardsmen better protect the waters in which they patrol.

“We’re proud of the way our captains have remained ahead of the curve when it comes to the use of new technology,” Sea Tow CEO Joseph Frohnhoefer III said. “Our job at Sea Tow is to provide the best service possible and make boating safer for everyone, and the use of drones allows our captains to do just that.”

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