Prepositioning Search and Rescue Drones Could Save More Lives, Experts Say

Time is of the essence in search and rescue operations.  The longer it takes to find a missing person, the less their chances of survival.  In theory, aerial drones can outperform helicopters and foot patrols and speed the search process considerably.  Moreover, equipped with thermal imaging cameras, drones can quickly identify missing persons at night based on their heat signature.  Humorous examples exist of missing persons being found within minutes of a drone being deployed, their rescue and survival assured.

But drones still need to be deployed promptly to be effective.  Drones have limited continuous flight time and cannot always fly long distances to a search area, but must first be transported there by a road vehicle before their deployment , which reduces their time advantage.  One possible solution is to have drones pre-positioned in areas known to feature missing persons – including large forests and national parks with their maze of multi-mile hiking trails – so that they can be deployed promptly, and perhaps automatically, by remote control.

The need for drone-in-the box SAR solutions was one of the topics that came up at last weekend’s sold-out National Public Safety UAS Conference held in Williamsburg VA.  One presenter, UK-based Skybound Rescue, is already assisting first responders with new software oto better mission plan their SAR operations but the company has just begun pilot testing its international network of  automated drone stations positioned in high risk areas.  The results so far have been impressive:  On average, an 8-minute drone response time compared to 73 minutes for an onsite foot patrol and 65 minutes for a manned drone team.  The actual search took only 13 minutes compared to more than 2 hours for the foot and manual drone team.  Moreover, the automated drone operation was overseen by a single person without pilot training compared to the cost of deploying a trained drone pilot or recruiting and managing foot patrols.

SkyBound’s next step is to build a global infrastructure of automated drone stations that would be financed through shared leases with multiple responder agencies.  All participating responders would gain access to drone data from any member’s SAR operation and could also monitor each individual operation from afar in real time; none would have to be onsite to fly the drone, or to have trained pilots on call to drive to search sites.  The entire operation, from drone launch to storage, including periodic battery recharging, would be managed remotely through a 100% self-regulated “drone-in-the-box” system.

Self0-regulating drone systems are currently being piloted  to expedite aerial surveying and inspections of farms and constructions sites and public utility grids; those operations can result in increased efficiency and enormous cost savings, but Skybound’s automated drone system is the first known effort to utilize the same technology to enhance human  survival. “The faster we get there, the faster we find them, the faster we deliver them to definitive care,” says Skybound founder and CEO Gemma Alcock. “That makes a real difference in outcomes.  That’s saving lives.”

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