The potential for drone technology in the realm of emergency response is undeniable and truly exciting. However, this technology is failing to meet its true potential through inaccurate purchasing decisions and ill-informed best practices.
It has long been known that a higher height of eye is the greatest advantage to search teams and until recent years emergency services have been solely relying on the costly involvement of search and rescue (SAR) helicopters for achieving an aerial view. However, over the past several years, the introduction of small affordable drones into the commercial market has become a significant game-changer to the SAR domain. The burgeoning drone market is predicted to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 32% between 2015 and 2020 into a $5.6 billion industry. The esteemed research company, markets and markets, estimates that first responders will be among the applications that will enjoy the highest demand for drones within the aforementioned timeframe.
While small drones cannot physically conduct a rescue or casualty extrication like a manned SAR helicopter can, the truism that there can be no rescue without first locating the casualty emphasises how critical drone capabilities are towards saving a life. Ultimately, the main functions of a SAR team are contained in the acronym LAST:
- LOCATE – define specific location of point last seen or identify casualty location
- ACCESS – establish rescue teams access to the casualty by appropriate methods wade/boat/helicopter. And ASSESS equipment requirements.
- STABILIZE – medical and physical stability to secure casualty
- TRANSPORT – transportation of casualty and rescuers to safety
Drone technology offers a plethora of capabilities that can greatly assist the LOCATE and ACCESS functions of the SAR operation. As cost continues to fall and capability rises, drone technology is vastly becoming a serious contender as the go-to asset for a higher height of eye advantage. The boost this technology can offer emergency services towards saving lives should not be underestimated.
However, there is a cornucopia of factors that can impact a drone’s performance, both internally and externally to a drone. Some factors are generic to all drone use – the impact of high wind speeds for example; others are very specific to emergency services with effective resolution being one of many examples. Effective resolution is the amount of pixels needed in order to be effective for a given degree of remote sensing. Remote sensing is divided into four functions, each requiring greater resolution to accomplish: surveillance, detection, recognition, and identification. The ability of a camera to accomplish each function is dependent on the size of the target, the optical capabilities of the camera, and the way in which it is being operated – for example, flying height. For the conduct of SAR operations, essential functions are detection and recognition. The operator must be able to detect an object from the background – for example, a person, vessel or car. Subsequently, recognition will ultimately be required to determine whether the object spotted is the specific object being searched for – for example, the specific pleasure craft in distress as opposed to others in the area. However, for police use, identification would also be necessary; ergo a significantly high level of remote sensing is required for emergency service use. If the wrong drone system is purchased, then at best only surveillance will be achieved, i.e. a mere wide-area observation of an area, providing general awareness of a given terrain. Equally, if the correct drone system is purchased but used incorrectly then again only surveillance can be achieved. Often it is not a matter of investing more money in order to actualise all four functions of remote sensing, it is largely a matter of gaining a better understanding: of purchasing the correct system and using it effectively. In short, the drone model that an emergency service decides to purchase and how they use it dictates what drone capabilities they have and the level of performance they then can achieve.
The influencing factors on performance that are specific to an emergency response end-user wherein lies a key problem. Emergency services have utilised the modus operandi for gathering drone information and advise; the commonplace method of visiting manufacturers’ websites and/or approaching drone salespeople whom have no SAR background or practical understanding of emergency response; thus receiving generic and biased drone guidance unspecific to their unique environment. The majority of drone equipment and information available is catered towards a photography/videography, or inspection, or precision agricultural industry professional. Their best practices and technology advice cannot be simply transferred to an emergency response setting. For example, 4K videoing capabilities may add considerable value to a videography end-user, but for an emergency service that requires only real-time footage via a first-person viewing (FPV) system – a lowland SAR team for instance – this feature would add no value to them. Whether the camera is filming in 4K, 2.7K, 1080HD, or other, the footage being streamed in real-time is almost always 720HD and never 4K. Yet a 4K camera is ubiquitously suggested as the best choice throughout marketing mediums. Following drone guidance that has been aimed at a different customer could lead to wasted expenditure and ill-informed best practices. Working with the same example, the lowland SAR team’s money would be better spent on a quality FPV system for real-time remote sensing rather than a 4K camera that only adds value to recorded footage. Ascertaining applicable and unbiased information is imperative, yet challenging at present.
Moreover, the emergency response sector use a specialised language and the drone industry use a very different but equally as technical vernacularism, neither of which cross-translate into one another very simply; leading to many miscommunications in performance requirements.
Given this dearth in SAR applicable drone intelligence combined with a growing need for it, skybound rescuer have spent the past 3 years researching and writing a rescue drone awareness course to fill the gaps in understanding, as described so far. More latterly, professional rescue SAR academy joined forces to assist in delivering this exciting new course.
On Thursday the 6th of April, skybound rescuer and professional rescue SAR academy held their first rescue drone awareness course for the emergency services at Popham Airfield, Hampshire, South England. This innovative new course welcomed delegates from Dorset Police, Dorset & Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service, Dorset Search and Rescue, Wessex Flood Rescue Unit, and a researcher from the University of Exeter.
“The SkyBound Rescuer awareness course gives you unparalleled access to the complex industry of using UAS within the Emergency Services. Anyone looking to develop in this area should attend this course and meet the professional team.”
Peter Cole, Dorset & Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Services
Throughout the day, the participants gained and/or developed their understanding of the basic principles of how drones can contribute to rescue efforts. These considerations included how to evaluate or plan for a rescue drone and payload system (including visual and thermal imaging), the important factors that will impact a drone’s lifesaving capabilities and performance, what the current relevant and upcoming aviation regulations are, to name a few. Not to mention, the delegates also experienced a DJI Inspire flight demonstration by UAV Insight, including the necessary steps prior to becoming airborne.
“This was a valuable day for me, re-enforcing best practice and safety standards for all drone operators.”
Sergeant Paul Vacher, Lead Drone Pilot, Dorset Police
It has an ambitious schedule that compromises of 12 modules, 4 group exercises, and a flight demonstration; offering great value for money for a one-day course whilst also achieving 7 Continuous Professional Development (CPD) hours as granted by the Institution of Fire Engineers.
“This course was a fascinating foray through emergency service drone use options, regulations and purchasing guidance. It was comprised of classroom materials and live demonstrations – both of which valuably introduced and enlivened the subject. Run by experts, and absolutely worth the investment.”
Dr Anna Jackman, PhD Researcher, University of Exeter
The first course was a great success and thoroughly enjoyed by all who attended, receiving an overall score of 98% from delegate feedback forms. Tickets for their next UK-based course are available from RescueDroneAwareness.eventbrite.co.uk Notably, skybound rescuer and professional rescue offer group discounts to all services plus further significant discounts to charity organisations, contact firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.