Drones are being used to save lives across the UK. From accessing confined spaces with the likes of the Flyability Elios to covering vast areas of land using the DJI Matrice 300 RTK. Police forces, fire services and search & rescue organisations alike are making a difference using new and innovative technology.
One of the many teams seeing the benefits of this technology is Leicestershire Search and Rescue. Set up in 2011, the team celebrated its 10th anniversary last November, now sitting at 52 members large after a decade of operation.
We caught up with Nick Canham – Chairman, and Emily Butt – Drone Lead from Leicestershire SAR. In this blog, we will explain how the team have been utilising drone technology to make their operations faster, safer, and more efficient.
About Leicestershire Search and Rescue
Like all search and rescue organisations, Leicestershire are on-call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Made up entirely of volunteers, the team logged over 8,000 hours in 2020, attending 246 events across the year. Covering the areas of Leicester, Charnwood, Melton, and Rutland, among others – the team assist Leicestershire Police cover around 965 square miles.
The team is made up of specialised search technicians branching across several units, including:
- Dog teams – Dogs are training to detect any human scent
- Foot teams – Deployed to all searches, the team are made up of various ‘boots on the ground’ technicians
- Bike team – Search technicians are trained to search using mountain bikes, speeding up the search process
- Team medics – Paramedics, technicians and search and rescue medics that are trained in a national casualty care qualification.
- Water bank search team – This out-of-water team are issued with water safety equipment including life jackets and throw lines
- Drone team – The team provides the potential to search areas that would previously have been inaccessible, such as marshy areas, roads, growing crops, and watercourses using various sensors
- Command team – This team are made up of search planners and managers that are responsible for the operational oversight of the incident.
They are also looking to expand to include a specialised swift water rescue team in the coming months.
Leicestershire SAR’s Drone Journey
“When we first started 10 years ago, we had nothing but ground search technicians. We’ve since been able to develop this, first bringing a dog team in 5 years ago, and then the drone team 2 years ago which has really increased our efficiency for searching for missing people,” explained Chairman – Nick Canham.
“When we were first looking at drone technology, we were concerned about the thoughts of the members in our ground teams. We could sense that they were worried that the technology was being brought in to replace members of the team, which couldn’t be further from the case.
We knew we had to look into drone technology to reduce the demand on our search teams, but also ensure their safety.”
And that’s what they did, starting their journey by completing the PfCO courses with Coptrz in 2020. Since then, the team have converted their pilots to the GVC qualification and haven’t looked back since.
The General Visual Line of Sight Certificate (GVC) is the remote pilot competency qualification that enables pilots to apply for operational authorisation in the UK. The GVC qualification gives pilots the ability to fly up to 50m from uninvolved parties, buildings, and built-up areas.
How Leicestershire SAR are using drones
When asked how the team is best utilising the technology, Nick stated:
“The overall aim is to find vulnerable missing persons as soon as possible and using as few resources as possible. Drone technology has allowed us to do that way more effectively than we have done traditionally.”
“The technology has enabled us to respond quickly to searches for missing persons. It’s given us such an advantage when completing our operations, especially at night with the high-quality thermal imaging camera that we have on our drone,” added Emily.
Currently, the team are operating are operating the DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise Advanced.
The M2EA is a powerful quadcopter with powerful sensors. It comes with a 48MP ½” CMOS visual camera, with up to 32x digital zoom, and a top-of-the-range 640 x 512px radiometric thermal camera, with up to 10x zoom.
What makes the drone even better is that it can fit in a small briefcase, that can then be slotted in the back of a car or incident command unit. When it comes to an operation the M2EA is launchable in under 1-minute, helping the team relay information to ground responders without any delay.
“The drone isn’t just used for the active searches for missing persons, we also use it from a safety perspective as well. Part of the situational awareness that the drone provides is understanding the areas that we are putting search staff into.
A great example of this is with our water bank search teams. Traditionally we wouldn’t have known if there were any dangers up, or downstream that the technicians could encounter. By using the technology, we can paint a better picture of the difficulties that searchers may face and then relay that back to them so that they know how to best engage with a situation,” explained Nick.
“In terms of ongoing training, we train around once a month. It’s key for us to train in various scenarios, geographies and terrains that mimic the sorts of situations that we would encounter on a live search.
We try to do all our training alongside other teams so we can integrate our methods of searching alongside each other. The benefits this has given us are amazing, as we can relay all the information that we are receiving from the drone to teams on the ground,” said Emily.
Experience with Coptrz
“One of the biggest considerations that we had to take on board when we were looking at drone technology was the governance around flying, which can be quite heavy at times.
We worked very closely with Coptrz who gave us absolutely expert guidance on what we should be looking at, the assets we needed, and what we should be looking to buy.
If I’m being completely honest, the team were a little bit nervous as many of them had never had any experience with drones prior, but the training Coptrz gave us was excellent.
We currently have 7 pilots in the team that are completely signed off, and we’re really happy with the service that we received.” – Nick Canham
“Around about four years ago we started a new project to raise money for a new command vehicle, as our old vehicle was becoming a little unreliable and a bit dilapidated. We approached the Police and Crime Commissioners’ office, and we were delighted to be awarded a grant of £50,000 to pay for our new command vehicle.
We project managed this with drones in mind and have multiple screens inside that we can live stream the drone’s feed. From a management perspective, this has given us an overall perspective of what’s going on at any time during the search,” explained Nick.
The team are also looking to expand their drone fleet, bringing in more tools to assist the way that their team works. Included development in this is the DJI Matrice 30T.
“The DJI Matrice 30T will be a great fit within our team as it will enable us to fly in harsher weather conditions, which we can’t do at the moment with a non-IP-rated drone.”
With the M30T being IP55 rated and the controller being IP54 rated, we can’t say there’s a better drone on the market for search and rescue organisations. The team will also benefit from a 41-minute flight time, launch times of under 60-seconds (like the M2EA), and a powerful multi-sensor payload.
In fact, the payload houses a:
- 48MP ½” CMOS Zoom Camera (Capable of 200x max. zoom)
- 640 x 512px Radiometric Thermal Camera
- 12MP Wide Angle Camera
- 1200m Laser Rangefinder
Accompanying this is a host of useful AI features, including:
- Pinpoint – A quick tap marks an object in view, and advanced sensor fusion algorithms immediately deliver its coordinates to teams on the ground
- Smart Track – Identify and follow moving subjects like people, vehicles, and boats with the auto-zoom function, while continuously acquiring the subject’s dynamic location
- Smart Low-Light Photo – Capture bright, clear images in low-light conditions, perfect for searching for vulnerable people in low-light conditions
- Live Annotations – Highlight objects or areas of interest for efficient mission management and resource distribution. Annotations are visible to ground teams, pilots or any team member for timely project alignment and task distribution.
By expanding their drone fleet, Leicestershire Search and Rescue will be able to cover ground more effectively, providing them with the best chance to locate vulnerable missing persons, and getting them the help that the require.
Find out more
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