A New Drone Mission: Underwater Search and Rescue

A growing number of public safety organizations are turning to drones to enhance their search-and-rescue (SAR) operations.  Helicopters and road vehicles may not be able to access remote and inaccessible areas, especially at night, where missing or fleeing persons may be hiding or injured, unable to communicate their need for help.  Drones equipped with long-range video surveillance cameras, infrared sensors and loudspeakers can fly into these areas and establish contact with these individuals, returning them to safety before they perish from the elements, or injure themselves and others.

But not all SAR operations are conducted on land.  When a plane or automobile crashes into a river or creek, or a swimmer goes missing, safety personnel may need to search under water for the wreckage and the humans involved.  Typically, they rely on human divers and sonar technology, but like traditional land-based SAR techniques, conventional underwater methods don’t always get the job done.  The water may be too cold or deep or the currents too swift for human divers to probe safely.  And SAR operations are normally suspended after daylight hours or when extreme weather rolls in, costing these operations valuable time.  Under these conditions, specially equipped underwater drones that can search and identify wreckage and bodies round the clock under difficult water and weather conditions may prove useful.

That’s what the Fire Department of Harrison County, Mississippi learned last year when they decided to purchase a small fleet of underwater drones to assist them and other nearby communities with their local SAR operations.  Harrison County (pop. 204,000) abuts the Gulf Coast and annually suffers water-related accidents of various kinds.  The most common problem, it turns out, isn’t rescuing the living, but retrieving  the dead.  Swimmers, boaters and car accident victims may drown and their bodies are either trapped deep underwater or swept away. Human diver teams find some but not all of the victims, and as time passes and the bodies remain unfound, the pain and the agony of their surviving family members mounts.

Harrison County’s underwater drones come equipped with waterproof video cameras, sensors, lights and large gripping tools, which are helpful for removing debris and at times, pulling a trapped body to the surface.  At $30,000 a piece, they aren’t cheap, but nearby public safety departments often chip in or rent the drones when their own emergencies arise.  SAR operations aren’t their only use:  The drones can also assist in underwater safety inspections of bridges and beams that human divers are typically called in to perform.  On balance, the drones more than pay for themselves and for most underwater missions, they’re safer and more efficient to use.

Pat Sullivan, Harrison County’s FD chief, says his department is constantly upgrading its drone technology as its needs evolve.  Its first drone fleet was smaller and the drones were too light to resist the often swift river and ocean currents.  The drones in its new fleet, dubbed “Revolution,” are twice as large, can dive deeper, and remain underwater longer.  Sometimes the drones perform the entire mission; other times, they perform reconnaissance to survey the problem before the dive teams are sent in.   Once a body is found, it’s usually beyond the capability of a drone to retrieve it.

“Every time we put [the drones] in the water, we learn something from it, and we get better at it,” Sullivan says.

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