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Drones for Search and Rescue

Last updated on

October 21, 2019


    Drones have saved 278 lives in Search and Rescue (SAR) operations since 2013


    Drone SAR operations

    We often talk about the main benefits of implementing drones into a variety of operations as being about saving time, money and lives. Time and money are both relatively easy to quantify. However, when it comes to the life-saving work of search and rescue (SAR), case evidence is needed to justify drone implementation.

    Back in March 2017, DJI released the results of its first study into lives being saved with drones. It found 59 cases dating back to 2013, including 38 in the 42 weeks between May 2016 and February 2017. One of the findings is 14 people saved in China after emergency supplies were dropped by a drone into a collapsed building. The other finding is 10 missing film crew in Turkey was found lost in snowy terrain by a drone operator.

    DJI admitted that the number should be higher as the study, at that time, only cited examples that were found via detailed news coverage. The study noted: “Our method likely undercounts the number of times drones have helped save a life, due to under-reporting of the tools used in emergency operations, as well as challenges in searching news reports across multiple languages.”

    A year after its initial study was published, in April 2018 DJI claimed 65 lives had been saved over the following 12 months. Just last month, at the launch of its Disaster Relief Program, DJI’s Director of Public Safety, Romeo Durscher, put the latest running total at 278. As technology improves and the adoption rate increases, surely that number is going to rise exponentially in the future.

    It is worth noting that implementing drones in SAR operations it’s not just about saving the lives of those in need. It’s also about minimising the risks to the first responders that bravely put their own lives on the line. By using drones to remove the need to send people into potentially hazardous areas, you’re not only saving time and money but also the rescuers themselves!

    Sam Denniff - UAV Strategist for Public Safety

    Sam Denniff – UAV Strategist for Public Safety

    As Coptrz’s UAV Strategist Sam Denniff explains: “Drones allow for emergency services to get a perspective that is usually only given by the use of a helicopter. This means that an ‘eye in the sky’ can be used far more frequently and to react much quicker to unfolding events.”

    Actually, before drones became popular, the UK police already have the great National Police Air Service (NPAS) to help SAR operations. However, that only has around 20 craft covering some 43 forces across the country. Drone units, combined with high-quality software and payloads such as a thermal-imaging device, are a great way to expand and improve those existing services.

    “combining high-quality thermal imaging technology with the correct platform allows emergency services to search large areas in a fraction of the time – often in areas where manned searches wouldn’t be able to reach,” said Sam.


    Choosing the Right Drone for Search and Rescue

    Mavic 2 enterprise

    It’s no surprise to see DJI as being a popular and justifiable choice for SAR operations. The original Mavic was a common pick for its portability and mobility, and that’s now been further enhanced by the wider Mavic 2 family.

    The Mavic 2 Zoom adds that extra visual detail its name suggests. Meanwhile, the Mavic 2 Enterprise package includes the likes of a searchlight, beacon and speaker attachments that could help improve any search scenario.

    For a more robust option, you might look to the Matrice 200 Series. The M210 with an XT2 thermal imaging camera or the Z30 visual camera with its 30x optical zoom could be a great choice for many. In more enclosed spaces, such as a collapsed building or underground tunnels, Flyability’s Elios 2 with its ‘collision tolerant’ frame could be a smart option.

    Parrot Anafi Thermal

    The Parrot’s Anafi Thermal could also be considered, especially for those working to a budget. It is also a good choice for some test cases before committing to a more expansive aerial SAR solution.

    Obviously, each use case scenario will have its own specific requirements and so what works best for one team might differ from what works for another. More typically you’ll find teams operate more than one craft, such as a Mavic 2 for close-quarters searches, while the likes of an M210, Inspire 2 or Phantom 4 Pro handles the wider searches or ongoing site management. The idea is to establish a cost-effective, ideally portable and easy-to-operate solution that can deliver the remote sensing services you need.

    Drone mapping software

    It might not just be the hardware that counts, as some good software can also go a long way. The imminent release of Pix4Dreact, designed to help create maps faster, easier and to be quickly shared with others, seems perfect for search and rescue situations. Likewise, other specialised software to help analyse the data can be crucial.

    In search and rescue situations, the data can be worth more than the drone itself and we’ve seen examples where teams have been willing to sacrifice a £1,000 craft. A Scottish mountain rescue team had no hesitation in losing a Mavic Pro to a deep gully on Ben Nevis in search of a missing man, while in Menlo Park, USA, a drone was sent to inspect debris under a bridge as heavy flooding threatened a whole community. Fortunately, the drone returned safely and the data gathered was a huge help to the response efforts.


    How to save on your aerial Search and Rescue hardware

    Police Drone

    Perhaps the most crucial part of any rescue team is the people themselves. A drone is just a tool and having a well-trained team of operators working in sync with those on the ground can make a big difference. For example, having a thermal imaging camera seems like an obvious thing for any SAR team to have, but having someone who can maximise its use and fully understand the data being collected can be key in finding a missing person.

    Our UAV Strategist Sam Denniff explains: “Pilots using drones within emergency services should consider their understanding of thermography and advanced flying, as well as ability to use mission planning and mapping software to greatly enhance the results that can be given. COPTRZ can train emergency services to use drone equipment, software, and payloads to increase safety, save money and reduce risk to life. The drone and associated support supplied by COPTRZ have already been deployed by emergency services country-wide, and have been used to huge success, saving lives in the process.”

    police drone

    Having a plan and putting it into effect can be another critical aspect of SAR operations. Another recent DJI study found that aerial search results would vary based on the skill of those involved and the tactics deployed. While still a relatively young sector of the SAR market there are no hard and fast rules, but having a plan or some kind of system in place before you turn up to a site can save valuable time.

    Likewise, being aware of the limitations of your operations is also important, with Sam offering one of many examples: “Bad weather can be a limitation, as it can with any search method. However, drones are now being used that can stand very strong winds and, to an extent, rainfall. Drone pilots need to understand the limitations of their aircraft and how to correctly plan a flight, so expert training is very important.”


    Where drones saved lives  

    Drone SAR operations

    As mentioned, the DJI study goes back to 2013 when a drone with a thermal camera was used to find a man in Canada after his car crashed in a remote wooded area in near-freezing temperatures. More recently there have been some well-documented stories here in the UK involving the police.

    Last year, Lincolnshire Police were called out to a car that had crashed into a ditch at night in sub-zero conditions. There was no sign of the driver and with fog and snow further hampering visibility. Later, a drone team with an Inspire 1 and XT thermal camera was called in to help. With a plan already in place, the team was airborne within 7 minutes of arrival and found the man 12 minutes later.

    Devon & Cornwall Police Drone

    Shortly afterwards, the Devon & Cornwall and Dorset Police Alliance were able to find a 41-year-old man who’d gone missing on the cliffs around Exmouth after an 8-minute flight. The force described it as “saving his life and hours of searching on foot by multiple agencies.”

    The similar rescue happened in Norfolk. A 75-year-old man was rescued after being found trapped in marshland and suffering from hypothermia. After a 50-person search including police, the helicopter had no joy, a drone team was called in and was able to use its Inspire 1 and Z3 camera to find him. The drones provide a visual aid to rescuers as well as giving precise GPS coordinates to find the victim.


    What’s Next?

    As previously mentioned, aerial search results would vary based on the skill and the knowledge of those involved in the SAR operations. Those who have deep knowledge and understanding about drones, including the payloads and software, are most likely excel in doing a SAR operation using drones. Here, at Coptrz, we will continue to do whatever we can to help first responders in improving their skills for SAR operations. We have lots of things that we can offer to first responders.

    Download our free SAR Drone Efficacy Report 

    Rescue operation

    The primary objective of the Drone Efficacy Study (DES) is to conduct a rigorous assessment of the value added by the drone to the current standard practice used for SAR missions. In our Drone Efficacy Report, you will find lots of recommendations that can help in improving drones usage in SAR operations.



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