SYDNEY (BLOOMBERG) - The quest for a Covid-19-safe summer is going high-tech. Surf patrol guards at some of Sydney's iconic beaches are using aerial drones so they can check that sunbathers are evenly spaced on the sand.
They're trying to avoid a repeat of scenes in the early days of the pandemic when the authorities were forced to close Bondi Beach and other spots after thousands flocked to the coast, with many ignoring social distancing rules.
While Australia has been a global leader in containing community transmission, the renewed outbreak in the second-largest city of Melbourne has shown how quickly the virus can get out of control.
Melbourne has just emerged from a three-month lockdown after security failures at hotels used to quarantine returning overseas travellers saw infections surge.
The lockdown worked, and Victoria state on Friday (Nov 13) reported its 14th consecutive day without new cases.
With the Southern Hemisphere summer around the corner, Sydney's beachside suburbs are braced for an expected influx of visitors. With international borders closed, meaning Australians can't head overseas for holidays, and some restrictions still in place on interstate travel, the city's beaches may be even more popular than usual.
"It is going to be a very busy summer," Northern Beaches Council Mayor Michael Regan said on Friday at the launch of the drone pilot project at Manly Beach.
"This partnership is a critical part of our summer Covid safety operations."
The drones will be operated by local surf lifesaver pilots who are already using similar technology to detect sharks.
The pictures will then be transmitted back to the local council to enable the authorities to see in real time where problems may be building. They can then respond quickly, for example by directing people to another area of the beach or dispatching officers to enforce social distancing.
In a sign of the complexity of operating in a Covid-19 world, each beach has a different maximum capacity depending on whether it is high or low tide.
"Nobody wants the beaches to be shut," said Mr Paul Hardy, chief remote pilot for Surf Life Saving NSW. "This is a tool that will allow them to stay open for longer."
Initially, the drones will operate at more than 20 beaches and parks from this Saturday through to the end of February.