Drone use could soon soar in search and rescue operations

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Search and rescue both on land and at sea are very important capabilities of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) also commonly known as drones. Take for instance, two boys rescued by drone from a rip current off the eastern coast of Australia in January.[1]

Caught up in heavy surf and in trouble, nearby lifeguard units, training with a UAV for shark detection, were notified of the incident. Within two minutes, a floatation device on board the “Little Ripper” UAV was dropped at the location of the struggling swimmers. They both grabbed on and eventually were carried to shore by the waves, unharmed. Rescuer Jai Sheridan stated in reports, “I was able to launch it, fly it to the location, and drop the pod all in about one to two minutes. On a normal day that would have taken our lifeguards a few minutes longer to reach the members of the public.”

While this is the first reported water rescue, there have been many instances of land-based search and rescue successes with UAV technology worldwide. In 2015, European Emergency Number Association and drone market leader DJI paired up for a six-month pilot project using UAV’s for search and rescue.[2] Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service, Donegal Mountain Rescue, Greater Copenhagen Fire Department and Reykjavik SAR team all used DJI’s drones and equipment for search and rescue missions over that time period.

Missing persons were the highest volume calls of all the UAV missions during the pilot project. One such missing person in a river/marsh area was located using the UAV in less than 15 minutes in what would otherwise have taken much longer using ground search only. Live streaming leads to improved situational awareness to the ground rescue crew even after the person has been located. Fires were another common use case for the UAV missions.

Project participants cited maintaining equipment, training, weather, and live streaming capabilities as challenges. Participants also noted it was better for the pilot to focus on the flight while the live feed was streamed to other searchers or a control center. Other recommendations included the ability to improve the ability to fly at night, drop payload such as a beacon, and more weather-proof systems.

“Using drones as part of our response to incident callouts has enabled us to respond faster and with more accuracy,” stated Olafur Jon Jonsson of the Reykjavik team. “We are able to search larger areas with greater accuracy in a shorter time span than before which makes it possible to deploy other SAR specialists in places where their capabilities are of better use. Drones have become an inseparable part of our response and their involvement will only grow with time.”

UAVs have proven themselves very capable in search and rescue missions. They should also be very cost effective in time and lives saved over ordinary search teams. As equipment and software is further developed for this mission, it will become a necessary and ubiquitous tool for saving lives.


1. https://www.surflifesaving.com.au/news/little-ripper-uav-world-first-rescue
2. http://www.eena.org/download.asp?item_id=207


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