Drones and Search-and-Rescue Operations (SAR)

Drones are used for a variety of purposes in a wide range of industries – from construction and mining to farming and traffic management.  In most of these cases, the scope of drone operations is fairly predictable.  A specific site needs to be mapped or surveyed and the video surveillance data collected and analyzed.  The work can be scheduled and the total time and costs involved estimated in advance.  But one type of drone operation is highly unpredictable: Search and Rescue or SAR.  In SAR, the scope of the aerial surveillance may be unknown in advance, or could expand rapidly as situational awareness develops.  At the same time, the pressure to conduct the work and achieve the desired result – finding a missing or wounded person, or perhaps a dangerous criminal on the run – is enormous.  It could mean the difference between life or death.

SAR operations generally carry special payloads – typically, a 4K wide-angle camera and a thermal imaging camera with infrared capabilities for locating people at night.  SAR drones may also carry a variety of sensor capabilities that can detect movements not just visually but by other means.  Also, it is not uncommon for a SAR drone to have a loudspeaker system to broadcast messages to a missing person or fugitive.  More sophisticated SAR drones also coordinate their various operations through a command-and-control system such as FlytNow, which allows drones piloted under the authority of different agencies – FBI, police, fire and EMT, among others – to share all data and to coordinate their operations in real time, avoiding confusion and duplication and improving the chances of mission success.

Remotely piloted drones have scored numerous SAR successes to date, often operating alone or as the front-line data collector, with manned air and road vehicles conducting the actual rescue operation as a follow up.  But in recent years, there is growing talk of how to integrate and “team” traditional manned aircraft – helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft– with drones into SAR operations from the outset.  Drones can survey areas and collect data in inaccessible areas that may pose a real risk to manned aircraft.  Unmanned, they can perform their operations in the midst of wildfires or natural disasters without the risk of loss of life to manned aircraft crew.  However, their speed and flight time are limited and they lack the ability to conduct rescues or even to deliver badly needed supply packages – food, blankets and medicine –  to missing or wounded persons in need.  Yet, they can identify a “drop” zone precisely, and with their guidance, manned aircraft can easily follow-up.

Ultimately, whether and how drones and traditional aircraft collaborate may depend on the nature of the SAR emergency – and the capabilities required.  In the Czech Republic, a special Mountain Rescue Service uses drones to find missing people trapped by an avalanche.  Drones, remotely piloted or not, can more effectively search these precarious areas during uncertain weather and ground conditions at reduced human cost and risk.  In other scenarios, a helicopter may serve as the lead SAR vehicle with a team of UAVs under its control.  The helicopter pilot may direct the drones to search different areas, and after reviewing their data onboard, organize the ensuing rescue or apprehension. There’s even a third possibility: Adding an eVOTL (electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicle) aircraft to the mix.   An electric VTOL aircraft is capable of carrying one or more medics to an accident scene, forming what Carl Dietrich, president and founder of the startup Jump Aero, calls a “quick response medical bridge” distinct from drones and helicopters.

In the final analysis, no one aircraft should be seen as the dominant element in SAR operations, analysts say.  With the human stakes so high and time such a critical factor, drones and other aircraft should be partnered – or not – in the division of labor and roles best suited to getting the job done.

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