Pioneering drone rescue scheme launched in UK
Drones have started operational missions to officially assist search and rescue helicopters for the first time in the UK. The remotely-controlled drones being used in Wales have been nicknamed “baby sharks” because of their appearance.
After three months of testing at Caernarfon, in Gwynedd, they are providing safety patrols over north Wales. This will allow coastguard and mountain rescue teams to watch live incidents from the air, giving them a better understanding of what’s required to complete a successful rescue.
Using drones for emergency services is something the police have already adopted worldwide. In the case of HM Coastguard in the UK, the drone flights that began in Wales on Saturday 1st August were a first.
In this article you will learn;
- How drones can assist in SAR missions
- The future of drone SAR
- How private SAR groups are utilising drones
- Drone SAR case studies
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Every second counts
Claire Hughes, director of HM Coastguard, is delighted drones are going to help save lives. She says every second counts in a rescue and can mean the difference between life and death.
Drone technology has a big part to play in future rescues, alongside existing helicopters, the coastguard rescue teams, the RNLI, independent lifeboats and rescue hovercrafts.
The drones’ range is 200km, which means they can assess emergencies out at sea before the lifeboat arrives. They can operate at a height of 5,500m and can stay airborne for around 10 hours before returning to base. Their onboard cameras will beam live footage to the control room, day and night and in bad weather conditions.
The unmanned craft launched from Caernarfon will support maritime and mountain missions. They are carrying out safety patrols across the beaches from Llandudno to Conwy Bay and across Snowdonia, Wales’ largest national park.
They will relay footage of various incidents to staff at the emergency services’ control room to choose the most suitable response. This will mean helicopter crews can remain on the ground until they know exactly what’s required.
Advanced drone technology
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency recognises how drone technology has advanced in recent years to the stage where it can significantly improve the success of air search and rescue operations. This reduces risks for the public and for the rescue crews.
The new service means the existing Sikorsky S92 helicopter crew can be kept on standby at Caernarfon, ready to take off at a moment’s notice on lifesaving missions. The unmanned craft will provide an overview of the area and monitor every new situation as it unfolds.
It will free up helicopter crews, who would otherwise be sent out to monitor the situation, without knowing the full details of what’s required.
In 2019, the search and rescue teams in north Wales completed 270 missions, with around 50% being in the mountains and hills spanning across Snowdonia as people got into difficulties.
The British government has revealed it expects drones to play an increasingly important role in search and rescue in the future across the UK and is to award a new contract in 2022.
Record number of rescues
Using drones in search and rescue couldn’t have come at a better time, as HM Coastguard dealt with a record-breaking number of incidents on Friday 31st July when the heatwave led to more people heading for the seaside.
There were more than 329 separate incidents across the country and the coastguard rescue team was deployed 232 times. This was the highest number in one day for four years. There were also 129 callouts for the RNLI lifeboat and independent boat rescue teams, 22 aircraft rescues and three hovercraft callouts.
The highest number of incidents occurred when people were cut off by the tide, while there were multiple missing children reports and swimmers and paddle-boarders getting into difficulties in the sea. The highest number of reported incidents occurred around Liverpool and the Wirral, where there were 26 callouts.
This appears to be an opportune time for drones to officially begin operational missions in the UK, as the hot weather seems to have brought people out – despite warnings by the government that COVID-19 figures are increasing again, leading to local lockdowns being imposed in some areas.
Duty operations director for HM Coastguard Julie-Anne Wood said the beautiful weather in much of the UK on 31st July had spurred thousands of people into going out. However, she added some people would remember the day for “all the wrong reasons” when the search and rescue teams had to go out to save them.
Even experienced swimmers, paddle-boarders and walkers can be caught out and may need assistance. As more good weather is forecast for August, the coastguard is urging people to check tide-times before going on the beach and to make sure they carry a phone to contact the emergency services if something goes wrong.
In other parts of the world, search and rescue drones have been in operation since around 2013 and have saved almost 300 lives to date. The amazing rescues have included 14 people trapped in a collapsed building in China and 10 people lost in snowy terrain in Turkey.
Private SAR drone groups
Private drone companies in the UK have long been involved in searching for missing people and pets in their local area. Denmead Drone Search and Rescue in Hampshire is a voluntary search and rescue group run by local resident Anthony Rumming, aged 38.
The former Metropolitan Police officer set up the service initially to search for lost pets in the Denmead area, after his own pet dog, Woody, went missing, but it has now evolved into a search and rescue service that looks for missing humans, as well as animals.
After leaving the police force to work in logistics, Anthony still felt compelled to help people. He says it feels brilliant to help others, especially when there’s a happy ending – as anyone who has lost a family member or a pet knows.
He recognises a need for improved rescue services and sees Denmead Drone Search and Rescue as being a valuable community resource. The group’s aim is to help the emergency services by doing work they wouldn’t normally do, such as going out searching for lost and stolen pets.
Anthony sees their role expanding in future by helping with any local crises, such as floods. He believes it’s a way of getting the local community to come together to help each other.
COVID-19 “a ticking timebomb”
He feels the current COVID-19 pandemic is a “ticking timebomb” in terms of people’s mental health, as they have lost their jobs, or been forced into solitary lockdown. This has the potential for significant fallout months down the line, with people suffering emotional and mental health issues and going missing as a result.
The government doesn’t have the resources to deal with the fallout, with mental health services already overstretched. As a result, a mental health nurse is voluntarily coaching the people who are working with DDSR on how to behave if they find a missing person.
Anthony says people’s great skills and hobbies as individuals can be put to good use when they all come together to help others. The group relies on donations to buy equipment and run the service.
Thanks to the support of the community – and with the help of social media – animals and people who have gone missing can be found much more quickly. Hundreds of drone enthusiasts, dog-owners, walkers, off-road vehicle drivers and horse-riders take part in the searches for missing people and pets, on the ground and in the air.
The success of DDSR has been publicised in the press, leading to similar voluntary groups starting up across the UK in order to replicate its good work. Anthony is currently in talks with drone-owners in the Manchester area to set up a similar search and rescue scheme there.
Drones taking part in search and rescue operations isn’t just about saving the lives of people and animals in need – it’s also about minimising the risks for the emergency teams, who are putting their own life on the line. The drones reduce the need to put people into potentially dangerous situations when they don’t know what is ahead of them.
Lost dogs found by drones
Some groups focus specifically on using drones to locate missing pets, such as Drone SAR for Lost Dogs UK. The group is run entirely by volunteers and has several administrators who have previous experiences in finding lost dogs, including drone-owners, dog-trainers and ground-searchers.
Anyone who has lost their dog can submit details to the national group, whose admin team will liaise with the owner to find out the exact circumstances in which the dog went missing.
Volunteer drone pilots give up their time to help with searches. Currently, more than 800 volunteer drone-owners help with the group’s vital work across the UK and Northern Ireland. The service is run via a pilot map, so the pilots in the area of each lost dog can be contacted.
The group has a Facebook page and the pilots in the relevant area are tagged into the dog-owner’s post to alert them that their services are required. The pilots make direct contact with the pet-owners to discuss plans for the search area and provide updates.
The pilots use apps – such as National Air Traffic Services – to examine the flight area, contact Air Traffic Control if necessary and gain approval to fly across restricted areas. The volunteer pilots go above and beyond the call of duty. Some of them have even camped out to carry out searches at dawn and dusk in remote areas.
More than 1,000 volunteer ground-searchers assist the drone pilots and carry out various aspects of search and rescue, including sharing posts on social media and using their local knowledge to inform the relevant people on the ground and liaise with dog-owners.
The group believes in teamwork and every aspect of its services relies on collaborating with other teams, including specialist trappers to capture often terrified lost dogs who are lying low.
Drone SAR for Lost Dogs UK has an excellent success rate in reuniting lost dogs with their owners. Their recent success stories include finding a small terrier called Ben, who was lost in Scotland’s Cairngorm Mountains.
He was spotted by a drone fitted with a thermal camera, having fallen down a gully, but then the weather took a turn for the worse. The experienced climbers who had volunteered to rescue him had to turn back. Eventually, he was airlifted to safety by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Without the help of the drone, he might never have been found.
With drones providing so much assistance for missing people and pets all over the UK, it’s no surprise there are increasing calls for government funding to aid all of the volunteers who give their time freely to help others. If you’re interested in setting up a drone rescue group and would like advice on kit or training please speak to one of our experts here.