Drones are increasingly used for search, but drones are capable of much, much more! This is just the beginning, drones will revolutionise search and rescue to save lives that couldn’t be saved before. Ultimately making search and rescue operations quicker and safer for all involved.
In many market spaces it is considered that drones are becoming saturated. However, market saturation could not be further from the truth when discussing drones as a First Response asset. This is just the beginning, drones will revolutionise search and rescue (SAR); enhancing current SAR capabilities to become quicker and safer, to save lives that couldn’t be saved before.
Saving Lives Quicker:
The ‘search’ element of ‘search and rescue’ is a complex, arduous, time-consuming, and costly task. These characteristics provide ample justification for developing more efficient search procedures, ergo implementing drones for rapid search and clearing of large open areas to conserve ground personnel. Moreover, it probably goes without saying that the best search asset is one you actually have. In a resource restricted world where budget cuts are frequent, manned aircraft and the highly skilled crew it requires may be otherwise tasked or unavailable. A recent statistics report for the UK’s Her Majesty’s Coastguard (HMCG) helicopter service highlighted that their helicopters were tasked to a mere 9 search-focused callouts across the UK in a 3-month period. Conversely, in the same 3-month period, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) were tasked to over 2,000 maritime search-focused incidents – this figure is in stark constant to the HMCG statistics report, and the RNLI are but one of many UK-based search organisations. The HMCG helicopters are rarely deployed to search-only tasks due to their lengthy response times, small numbered fleet, and expense, despite their inherent height of eye advantage necessary for rapid search. Into the future, a drone may be the only aerial asset option available for a search-focused operation. Furthermore, since manned aircraft are often at a premium, the employment of drones in a SAR operation may allow manned flight hours to be conserved until required for rescue operations, i.e. the drone conducts the aerial ‘search’ element then subsequently monitors a located casualty while a ‘rescue’ helicopter is dispatched and en route. At the very least, small drones can provide basic aerial search capabilities at orders of magnitude less cost than a manned aircraft. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the UK’s Maritime and Coastal Agency (MCA) would collaborate with the RNLI on their ‘Exploitation of the Third Dimension for Search and Rescue’ technology demonstrator project. The MCA and RNLI are hosting a technology demonstrator challenge in April 2018 for drone technology companies to demonstrate their product offerings in five different SAR scenarios, with search being one of the five. This project could consequently see drones entering the world of maritime SAR for the UK on a National scale.
Drones are increasingly used for search operations – for all the aforementioned reasons, and more – but drones are capable of much more than just search-specific activities. Technology myopia often clouds people’s judgement on what these machines can offer lifesaving operations. Emergency services need to move away from narrowly viewing drones as mere flying camera/sensor holders to realise that their capabilities are much broader than that; if – and only if – they have been designed to do so. As such, skybound rescuer launched an online video campaign towards the end of last year (2017) called “Life Saving – The Future”, which proved that specifically designed drones can even carry out some elements of rescue. The video played out a scenario of three rescue teams responding to a plane crash; these three rescue teams consisted of a search drone team (skybound rescuer), a rescue drone team (aerones) and a rescue boat team (professional rescue). The search drone was deployed alongside the rescue boat team to search for casualties. The drone successfully located the air crash casualties and passed on the coordinates to the other rescue teams. The rescue drone was a heavy-lifting multi-rotor drone that has the capability of lifting up-to 100Kg, and as such was used to deliver a 60Kg life-raft to the casualties to stabilise their condition – the first phase of rescue – ahead of the rescue boat’s arrival. Lastly, the rescue boat arrives on scene to offer pre-hospital treatment and to bring the casualties back to relative safety for definitive care. Although the main aim of this video was to demonstrate that drones are capable of more than just search, it also had a second key aim: to disprove the common misconception of drones replacing rescue teams. Instead, drone technology stands to enhance SAR capabilities – integrating seamlessly within current SAR teams. In this instance, they raced ahead of rescue boat teams to locate and stabilise a casualty’s condition, which made the extrication and medical assistance role of the rescue boat team simpler and therefore quicker; which, in a triage scenario, such as a plane crash, is invaluable for the best chances of mass survival. This online video accumulated over 30,000 combined views across skybound rescuer’s social media channels, and based on its success, a live demonstration is in the pipeline.
Quicker SAR by use of drones is a concept that continues to be proved time and time again. The European emergency number association (EENA) ‘DJI Pilot Project’ report described several real cases where drones had sped up the SAR process and therefore contributed to the success of the task. In one example, a drone was used in a missing person search over a river and marsh area. The drone unit used a thermal camera and located the missing person and supported the Police in approaching them. It was expressed within the report that the drone reduced the search time to less than 15 minutes, whereas a ground team would have taken a multiple of this to locate the missing person due to the difficult terrain.
Another missing person incident described within the report was over an area of lava fields, an extremely difficult terrain to traverse. The Incident Commander for this particular search suspected that the missing person was not in that location, but nevertheless had to cover the area in order to rule it out with certainty. The drone team searched the wide area in just 40 minutes, confirming that the area was indeed clear. A ground team searching by foot would have taken between 4 to 6 hours and possibly with much greater degree of uncertainty, due to the treacherous terrain.
These are but two examples of many. Stories of people being saved and/or located by a drone asset is becoming ubiquitous and increasing within the media; and this is just the beginning.
Saving Lives Safer:
As well as offering effective and efficient response, drone technology can afford protection to the emergency services on site.
In emergency situations, one of the first requirements is to gain up-to-date situational awareness information at the highest quality available and as quickly as possible, to mitigate the risks and hazards that rescue personnel are subjected to.
“Being ‘situationally aware’, is so important in operations, as a skillset it has to be raised almost to the level of being done instinctively so that one can react decisively to hazards, helping one’s own safety and that of colleagues and the people you’re there to assist.” – David Lane MIFireE, AssocRINA, FRIN, Director of Professional Rescue SAR Academy
Without a doubt, real-time aerial imagery – that a drone can provide – significantly improves situational awareness, which supports dynamic risk assessments and, in turn, decision-making of the Incident Commander, and therefore increases the safety of tactical teams in rescue situations.
For example, during severe flooding events, all that was known about an area prior to a flood becomes secondary data; it may no longer be true. Until it is confirmed, it cannot be reliably acted upon.
Added to the challenge of holding potentially inaccurate situational information about a flooded area are sudden gaps in information: Where are on-going hazards, such as strainers or weirs? Are there sources of contamination as a result of the flood? A drone could supply the Incident Commander with this crucial real-time information, before sending teams into unknown hazardous areas. Furthermore, during flooding events, ground mobility is limited by inaccessible terrain, thus reaching remote search areas may put the safety of ground and boat teams in danger. In this case, a drone may be the only safe search asset to utilise.
Too many emergency response members have been killed by an inability to gain sufficient situational awareness when plotting their route in the heat of the action. With drone technology so readily available for live streaming of a wide area, these deaths should no longer be happening.
Moreover, the use of a drone could negate having to put a helicopter crew in potentially dangerous situations. Drones are frequently employed in search areas which are inaccessible to a helicopter or in weather conditions that are too hazardous to manned aircraft (e.g. fog).
The safety of rescue personnel is at the heart of every emergency service procedure and drones can help to mitigate risks in even the most unforgiving of environments, such as floods and wild fires; and this is just the beginning.
Clearly drones greatly assist SAR activities in several ways already, which looks to be continuously growing in variety and efficiency. At present, implementing a drone ahead of personnel can help eliminate search areas, targeting the areas with the highest probability of detection (POD) as part of an initial hasty search and then later as an efficient search. In this way, the Incident Commander can clear search areas and focus the limited numbers of personnel and assets where they are most effective or required. Into the future, drones will grow in SAR capabilities, as proven in skybound rescuer’s ‘Life Saving – The Future!’ video campaign, whereby a drone achieved the first stage of rescue: stabilisation.
Drones are also proving to be an invaluable situational awareness tool, which ultimately ensures better outcomes for those in need of help and, importantly, it enhances the safety of the emergency response teams.
With an increase in funding opportunities available for explorations into drone emergency response, SAR drone technology and training is expected to build in strength and adoption. For example, ‘emergency situations’ is a particular focus for nesta’s ‘Flying High Challenge’, whereby cities in the UK can apply with a proposal for futureproofing their city for drone development –5 cities will be selected for support by 1st of February 2018. Those 5 cities may enjoy a boost in drone emergency response capabilities.
The potential for drone technology in the realm of emergency response is undeniable and truly exciting; and this is just the beginning.
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