Drone technology is increasingly being utilised in support of Search and Rescue (SAR) activity in the UK and US, supplementing helicopter capability for aerial search. In this second of a series of articles focusing on emergency service drone use, we will show that there are huge benefits and some challenges for search and rescue agencies looking to operates drones in this way.
Benefits of Drones in Search and Rescue
Search and Rescue organisations now have access to advancing search capability in the guise of drone technology. Whether operating in the above ground, subterranean or maritime domains, drones offer an airborne search function that they have not previously enjoyed and so blending drones into their overall concept of operations will prove to be a challenge.
For search operations above ground, agencies such as the UK Lowland Rescue Association and certain Mountain Rescue organisations such as Scotland’s Tayside Mountain Rescue Team (MRT), have already started to operate drones to enhance their wide area search capability. In the wider global context, numerous international rescue organisations are already using drones for search operations following major natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes and flooding events.
In the maritime environment, the US Coastguard already has an effective drone capability and the UK Coastguard and Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) are exploring wider search capability through drone technology, the latter being a stakeholder in a research project to develop and exploit Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) technology for future application.
A unique environment in which drone technology delivers benefits is the subterranean domain where Cave Rescue and Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) organisations are now examining drone systems equipped with technologies to enable them to search in confined and inhospitable spaces.
There are challenges for the operators however. Not only will they be required to understand and comply with CAA and FAA regulations in the conduct of basic drone operations but they also face the challenge of learning additional operational procedures to incorporate drone capability into an established operational framework. To ensure the efficient use of training resources, potential drone pilots need to be identified through basic selection processes and regulatory compliant training completed. Additional to this basic flying training requirement, candidates must then learn basic search techniques applicable to their role, including enhanced pilot and observer training, use during water rescue and night operations. The latter, in particular, brings significant challenges with additional safety requirements from the regulators.
Throughout all of this the Pilot-in-Command (PIC) must learn how to communicate effectively with the Observer and other members of the team, whilst passing concise and current imagery information so that the overall search effort can benefit from the improved situational awareness without any detrimental effect on the whole activity. Integrating this imagery into the decision-making cycle means the command level must understand drone capability fully to optimise its benefits and minimise any operational ‘drag’ on the search function.
An area that is typically poorly understood is the process of turning the captured data, often a live feed from the drone, into a quick analysis process so that it can quickly and effectively support decision making at command level. For organisations not used to this type of visual search capability this presents some cultural and procedural challenges, often requiring some changes to their operational mindset. This cycle of information flow is the most difficult to learn for the uninitiated and must be practised continually to enable safe and effective application. This is where the greatest benefits lie, in delivering actionable information to support effective decision making, which ultimately will then result in a successful search effort.
These concepts are contained within the Consortiq’s Unmanned Aircraft Qualification - Emergency6 (UAQ-Emergency6) training course, designed specifically to focus on drone use for emergency service application. This equips candidates with awareness of drone capability and operations and builds on all the points mentioned above.
Learn more about using drones in emergency service operations here, with our latest industry report.