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All Out To Sea – How Drones Can Transform Coastal Rescue

Last updated on

June 11, 2020


    All Out To Sea – How Drones Can Transform Coastal Rescue

    Her Majesty’s Coastguard (HMCG) is responsible for maintaining safety on the coast and at sea, coordinating maritime search and rescue (SAR) operations.

    In the UK, the Coastguard employs over 1,000 staff with 3,500 Coastal Rescue Officers (CROs), many of them unpaid volunteers, who patrol the coastline, cliffs and seas around the British Isles.

    Coastal rescue teams around the shores of Great Britain – and abroad – have been trialling the use of drones to assist them in their operations. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are increasingly being added to the Coastguard’s air fleet to aid in SAR activity. In 2019, the UK Coastguard performed seven SAR helicopter missions a day, saving the lives of 1,600 people.

    In This Blog You Will Learn;

    • History of the Coastguard
    • Development of Coastguard’s Equipment
    • Current Drone usage by HMCG
    • Case Studies
    • Future Drone Usage

    If you’re interested into incorporating drones into your operations you can speak to one our experts here.

    Blocking the parson’s brandy

    The origins of HM Coastguard (HMCG) lie in the days of black-sailed ships, burning beacons and barrels of brandy. Formed in 1822, the HMCG amalgamated a number of predecessor bodies with its primary purpose being to assist shipwrecks and prevent smuggling activities.

    Smuggling was a problem for the authorities from the 13th century and reached a zenith during the 1700s and early 1800s. “Brandy for the Parson and ‘baccy for the Clerk” – as Rudyard Kipling put it – were smuggled into the country in huge volumes.

    Though we may romanticise the days of the smuggler, the ever-present threat of violence and retribution on informers and officials lingered in every cove. An occupation as a coastguard was not one for those of a weak disposition. And the task of rescuing those in peril off the coast or on the cliffs is exhausting and dangerous. It still is.

    The coastguard’s developing armoury

    The role of the British Coastguard increasingly turned to public safety and hands-on rescue as smuggling waned during the late 19th and 20th century.

    Her Majesty’s Coastguard supported the lifeboats of the RNLI and kept watch over the seas and shipping lanes and as coastal pursuits grew during the 20th century, so did the role of saving lives.

    The early coastguard officers were equipped with little more than ropes, telescopes and binoculars. Communication was enabled with signal lamps, megaphones, foghorns, morse code signalling, semaphores and later telegraphy.

    From the 1930s, the use of radio aided the Coastguard in preventing tragedy. Officers could warn ships of impending danger and communicate with lifeboats launched to assist vessels in distress.

    In the 1960s, the introduction of rough terrain vehicles increased mobility and accessibility to challenging areas. And the Coastguard started using their own SAR helicopters from 1971, taking responsibilities from the military.

    Those incremental leaps in technology transformed both the role of the Coastguard and the effectiveness of its operations. Now in the 21st century, it is the drone which will move things on yet further.

    The current picture of Coastguard drone use in the UK

    The UK Coastguard is still largely in the trial and test stage of drones to support its operations. In the summer of 2019, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) announced the launch of the groundbreaking Pathfinder project and invited bids from specialist drone providers to offer solutions to coastal SAR activities.

    The aim of the ongoing project is to assess whether drones could “help with search and rescue by visiting the scene ahead of air, sea or land-based recovery teams.”

    Alongside this, there is detailed work underway to assess how current regulations need to be changed to enable SAR UAVs to be quickly launched in a response situation. The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority prevents BVLOS (Beyond Line of Visual Sight) flights in non-segregated airspace which limits the application of drones to search for those in danger.

    The MCA is keen to integrate the use of drones to aid Coastguard SAR operations in its new contract which is expected to be awarded in March 2025.

    Trials of drones by coastal rescue services in the UK have been underway in several localities, including in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and in the South West of England.

    Elsewhere, the RNLI has been working in conjunction with the Coastguard in Wales off the coast of Llantwit Major. The collaboration has been testing drone use in four specific – and common – scenarios for the lifesaving organisations.

    The drones have been used in an open water offshore search; a shoreline search along cliffs; a mud rescue using high sand dunes; and a communications scenario, where a casualty is unable to be contacted either because of their injuries or location. Other scenarios will be added as the trials develop.

    The potential benefits of using UAVs to aid the work of the Coastguard is enormous. But there remain very practical and regulatory matters which have to be overcome before drones are regularly launched above our beaches, dunes and cliffs to perform SAR operations.

    Coastal rescue drones – case study in Australia

    The picture around the globe varies quite widely as other countries push ahead with either trialling the use of drones for coastal rescue scenarios or actually having reached a point where they can be – and are being – deployed in real-life missions.

    Hailed as a “world-first”, a drone rescued two swimmers off an Australian beach in January 2018. Luckily for the pair, who had found themselves in difficulty at a popular spot for surfers, a team was taking part in a training session at the time to use drones to pull people to safety. Lifeguards deployed the drone and were able to drop a rescue pod into the sea, where it expanded, enabling the swimmers to reach the beach unharmed. The rescue took just over a minute.

    Since then, Australia – a nation of sea, surf and sand lovers – has been at the forefront of pushing ahead with testing the use of UAVs in coastal operations. In February 2020, Australia’s civil aviation safety authority cleared the use of drones for lifeguard operations.

    That regulatory change allowed the coastguard in New South Wales to deploy a new team of “dry” lifeguards piloting drones. The pilots don’t require any advanced swimming ability and go on patrol wearing distinctive red-and-yellow uniforms. Each operator is required to undergo a two-day training programme in UAV operations and safety.

    Elsewhere Down Under, in another “first”, trials launched in June 2020 have begun flying drones equipped with Artificial Intelligence (AI) to detect the presence of sharks near beaches. Video footage is analysed by sophisticated algorithms to identify the species of shark in the water.

    The real-time information can then be used to alert swimmers and close beaches if required. Drones can dramatically improve the effectiveness and efficiency of shark detection techniques. Currently, the task is labour-intensive with a team of human observers scouring the water for the presence of potentially deadly sharks.

    Coastal rescue drones – case study in the USA

    In the summer of 2019, US Coastguards began using drones to inspect a network of newly installed Aids to Navigation (ATON) structures. ATONs are steel towers used as fixed channel markers in oceans, rivers and waterways.

    The inspection UAV was piloted from a small boat assigned to the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Bollard. The operations are estimated to have saved 30 hours of human inspection work which can be perilous when climbing and working at height.

    Smuggling has never died. In modern times, it has simply changed its focus. Drug trafficking is big business and a big problem for authorities around the world. The US Coastguard monitors some six million square miles of ocean. The massive task of halting the passage of narcotics into the country falls to just five cutters stationed around the coast. Since 2017, that operation has increasingly been aided by UAVs.

    Drones are launched from the deck of coastguard cutters to scan the surrounding waters for suspect shipping. The technology assesses factors such as a vessel’s size, cargo and movement. When a suspicious target is identified by the drone, a “go-fast” boat is launched to chase down and intercept the potential traffickers.

    For 30 years, the US Coastguard has partnered with the Menlo Park Fire Department to conduct SAR missions above San Francisco’s congested South Bay. In 2019, the collaboration moved ahead with integrating drones into their aerial operations – a challenge in one of the busiest air corridors in the world.

    The first responder drones are used to complement traditional aircraft and helicopter operations. The expansive navigable waterways of the area are patrolled by rescue boats supported by the UAVs. Parts of the terrain can be a particular challenge for vehicles and specialist flat-bottomed boats with marsh areas, mud and tidal bay waters. As well as supporting SAR operations, the drones are also used for post-incident mapping and imaging.

    Drone use in the future of coastguard operations

    Drones have a big future in supporting the work of coastguards. Almost every aspect of the operations undertaken by coastal rescue services can be complimented or led on by UAV applications. Worldwide, agencies are deploying drones on an ever-increasing basis.

    The potential to unlock the technology to help those indistress on the coastline will undoubtedly make SAR activities safer and more efficient. But there remain barriers to overcome.

    Not least is the necessity to adapt regulations to fully unleash the potential for drone use –   but of course with safety paramount and with regard to the protection of privacy.

    But it may not be just airborne drones which patrol our coasts. Parrot has been busy working on a range of hybrid drones. The Hydrofoil drones transform from a high-performance boat to an airborne vehicle with a tap of a button. The potential to launch and land drones on the sea – perhaps alongside a stricken vessel or swimmer – could be huge for coastal rescue.

    If the development of telegraphy, radio communications and the use of helicopters were all milestones in the evolution of coastguard operations in the 19th and 20th century, it is certain that drones will be the next big advance as the second decade of the 21st century progresses. UAVs are indeed the game-changer in maritime surveillance, search and rescue.

    Once again, If you’re interested into incorporating drones into your operations you can speak to one our experts here.


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