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Drones in SAR - the power of the hive mind

  • 5 days ago

In search and rescue (SAR) operations, time is of the essence. The first 72 hours can be vital in the search for a missing person; rescuers may need to cover large areas and navigate rough and inhospitable landscapes when searching. In 2017 in England and Wales alone, nearly 20,000 man hours of SAR operations were spent searching. But, what if we could use technology to reduce that and help people be found faster?

UAV use moving with the times

Drone and unmanned air vehicle (UAV) technology has come a long way since its original purpose of removing people from military missions considered too dangerous or inappropriate for human pilots. It is now increasingly used to assist rescue services in operations, particularly for searching, as drones can quickly reach vantage points humans cannot easily access. Across the world, drones are being used for this very task and, combined with developments in imaging technologies, can be powerful tools in search operations.

Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team, for example, regularly uses aerial drone footage to help find injured climbers and walkers in Scotland. Adding a highpowered search light to a drone can provide a welcome light source during nighttime rescues. Search and rescue teams based in a mountainous region of the US have already used drones with lighting to find and save trapped hikers in Snowy Canyon State Park after dark. In addition to traditional light sources, thermal imaging has also been used in a range of scenarios, like finding a person who had been thrown clear of their car in an accident at night time. This technology can help save lives. But it is not just people that drones can be used to detect and observe.

In emergency scenarios, such as fires or building collapse, the structures need to be regularly monitored and assessed to mitigate any harm to trapped persons or crews. Using a drone to survey and assess the structural soundness of large structures and buildings provides emergency and rescue services with the confidence to act quickly when working with a burning or collapsed structure. Adding a thermal imaging camera provides a good way to safely monitor fire hotspots within a building, find people under rubble and track crews and people to be rescued.

Using drones to do as well as see

As drones become more powerful and are available in a greater range of sizes, they can be used for a greater breadth of activities beyond SAR surveillance. Airborne vehicles have a clear role to play, particularly in the speed of response, with the advantage of using a drone in an urban setting estimated to be 120 per cent when direct line speed, traffic advantage and field of view are all taken into account. In addition, compared to manned aircraft used for inspection, drones have the advantage of lower resource requirements, and can be deployed in large numbers.

One area that airborne vehicles can help is in the delivery of medical supplies. A project called Gold Dragon, run in partnership with the Welsh Ambulance Service, has shown a proof of concept for the delivery of a mini defibrillator via drone to remote or rural locations that would otherwise be difficult to reach quickly in an ambulance.

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