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The Mountain Rescue Drone Revolution

Last updated on

November 17, 2020


    The mountain rescue drone revolution

    Drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have revolutionised the work of Mountain Rescue teams. And drones for emergency services, to assist in locating and saving the lost and injured, is only set to explode exponentially in the future.

    At COPTRZ we’re always looking to support our Search and Rescue teams as much as possible. Earlier this year we launched our Free Online Drone Training for the Emergency Services including Mountain Rescue and SAR teams up and down the country.

    Since then, we have taken it one step further and held a competition which gave one lucky search and rescue team the chance to win a Mavic Enterprise Dual to support search and rescue call-outs.

    Congratulations to the Holme Valley Mountain Rescue Team who were the winners of the drone. We know how invaluable drone technology is during search and rescue missions so this will be an asset to their future call outs.

    Sam Denniff, our UAV strategist for Public Safety with Ben Sheard – drone officer at Holme Valley Mountain Rescue

    Ben Sheard, drone officer at Holme Valley Mountain Rescue, said: “I would like to see us using the Mavic Dual for moorland searches, getting the height advantage will be affective there as often as a person on foot you can by stood 10 metres from someone but not be able to see them because of the marsh. When putting the drone up, especially with the thermal camera, you can pick them out very quickly. I’m hoping we can use it for that, and also de-risking areas we search on foot.

    “We have times when we come across a risky area such as a quarry or a steep edge, if we can put a drone over it instead, it will potentially stop us putting our team members at risk where they may fall and have accidents themselves. At the end of the day the drone is a piece of equipment, not a person.

    “Another application might be during water searches, often with missing people, we search areas such as reservoirs and rivers. If we want to search the edge of a reservoir, we have to put a water team in with wet suits to search the area manually. Using the drone could be an option for this type of search too.”

    Headlines appear regularly with authorities forced to condemn the “stupid” behaviour of some climbers and hikers. Perhaps the one who attempted to reach a peak dressed only in shorts and trainers or the party who thought a hike up Ben Nevis was akin to a Sunday stroll.

    But the army of hardy volunteers who patrol the summits must respond instantly to save lives in the face of ever-tightening budgets while demands on the Mountain Rescue services continue to rise markedly.

    Arise the mountain rescue drone. Your time at the peak has come.

    UAVs are a powerful addition to the tools available to Mountain Rescue teams. A drone can enter a search area or disaster site with speed to quickly provide situational data and reduce risk. UAVs are expendable compared with human life and drones provide critical support to Mountain Rescue teams due to their agility and autonomous behaviour.

    The role of Mountain Rescue

    The UK’s Mountain Rescue teams perform a vital function in emergency situations. Mountain Rescue are often called out to help walkers and climbers, skiers and trekkers who might be lost, injured or in danger. They also carry out river rescues and work with the police in urban searches.

    And they’re a busy bunch. According to Mountain Rescue England, there were nearly 1,500 deployments in England and Wales in 2017, with over half of those call-outs requiring assistance to be given to an injured person. Of those, there were sadly 31 fatalities. Such are the demands placed on Mountain Rescue teams around the country, there were only nine days during the year in which there was no mountain search and rescue operation.

    And it costs a lot too. Scottish Mountain Rescue estimate that the cost of each deployment equates to around £2,500. Mountain Rescue may be free in Great Britain but such is the demand on resources that occasional calls to “charge them” flair up in the media when the woefully ill-prepared are brought down safely from the summits.

    The history of the human effort in mountain rescue

    Up until a hundred years ago, a farmer, shepherd or quarryman who had the misfortune of injuring themselves on a mountain was in a perilous situation. They either died at the scene or had to hope for the arrival of a rescue party hastily assembled from the local community using makeshift equipment.

    Often, the injured party who was lucky enough to survive a fall, being overexposed to the elements or getting trapped by an avalanche, was then unlucky enough to die in agony as their injuries were exacerbated on the arduous route back down the mountainside.

    There had been horrific accidents before which highlighted the lack of mountain rescue resources but a handful of tragic cases in the early 20th century focused the public mind. Most notable had been the “Scafell Disaster” of 1903 when four climbers tied together were killed when their leader slipped.

    But the absence of a coordinated response to mountain rescue was brought starkly into light in 1928. Rucksack Club member Edgar Pryor suffered a broken skull and thigh bone having fallen 40 feet after a female climber collided with him at Laddow Rocks in the Peak District.

    Pryor had to be carried for four hours to the nearest road and was then transported a further hour and a half by ambulance to the nearest hospital. The shock he endured during the journey was so severe he required a blood transfusion to be operated on and his leg would eventually be amputated.

    Though serious, Pryor’s injuries were not entirely uncommon in climbing terms. However, the difficulties in rescuing him proved to be the catalyst for the formation of Mountain Rescue committees in the ensuing decades. These organised groups were better equipped and they trained their volunteers to coordinate rescue efforts.

    And so mountain rescue would largely continue as it were until well into the new millennium. Humans and dogs, aided at times by aircraft and helicopters, were deployed to perform search and rescue attempts. Indeed, dogs were only first used by Mountain Rescue teams in the 1960s such was the continued reliance on man to hunt for and retrieve the lost souls of the ranges.

    The rapid development of drone technology in recent years is truly transforming the work of Mountain Rescue teams. Those traversing the peaks to save the lives of climbers and those downed in light aircraft crashes now have a new powerful airborne aid to their work.

    We have lift off – Mountain Rescue eyes in the sky

    It has only been in the last few years that Mountain Rescue teams have begun adopting drones. But despite the slower uptake than in other sectors who have reaped the rewards from UAVs, the benefits have soon proven to be enormous.

    The newly-formed Search and Rescue Aerial Association-Scotland (SARAA) was only admitted to Scottish Mountain Rescue, the umbrella body for most teams north of the border, in 2018 following extensive feasibility studies.

    Buxton Mountain Rescue Team, which covers the Peak District National Park, was the first Mountain Rescue England and Wales team to be given approval by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to use drones during operations in March 2019.

    Admittedly, it does take time for drone technology to be implemented in not-for-profit sectors. As Mountain Rescue teams are charitable organisations, manned by volunteers, raising the funds to invest in a UAV suitable for work in harsh conditions takes time. As does meeting the requirements of the CAA.

    The CAA requires that drone pilots possess certification and that they must demonstrate not only good theoretical knowledge but also the ability to plan drone operations and possess the practical competence for safe use of UAVs. That requires extensive training but it is provided free of charge by COPTRZ to the emergency services.

    But as the technology of drones continues at pace, and advances make UAVs more affordable, so too do the capabilities of drones and so the ability of search and rescue teams to deploy them in a variety of situations.

    Certainly, there is a growing and irrefutable body of evidence to show that drones can save Mountain Rescue teams time and money, reduce risk to personnel, and lessen the impact of injuries upon the hills, fells, peaks of the UK.

    DJI, one of the world’s leading drone manufacturers, neatly illustrate the future of UAVs in search and rescue. In 2017, 65 people had been rescued using drones worldwide. In 2018 this had rocketed to 133 and in 2019 it was 279.

    Those numbers will only continue to soar. Up, up and away. The drone mountain rescue revolution is underway.

    How drones are changing the face of mountain rescue

    The fundamental principle of search and rescue assignments is that the more time teams can spend rescuing rather than searching, then the better their resources are deployed. And that is particularly true when conditions are hazardous.

    In 2017, Mountain Rescue teams in England and Wales spent nearly 20,000 man hours performing a “search” function. That equates to 20 per cent of all operations. Over 60,000 hours were spent on “rescuing”.

    Deploying a drone in a search provides two main functions. The UAV provides aerial intelligence on the whereabouts of missing persons. That helps rescue teams locate them more quickly and return real-time information on the search area.

    Not only do drones return visual imaging to search teams, but when fitted with powerful lights they can illuminate the ground below and with the addition of thermal imaging and infra-red cameras, UAVs can be used to peer through fog, darkness and vegetation. The bigger the payload of the drone, the more it can be equipped with.

    As well as this, the drone provides information on the weather and territorial conditions in which the missing person or casualty has found themselves. This enables rescue teams to know what faces them and assists in preparing accordingly with the right equipment assembled to assist immediately.

    This is where the drone comes into its own. Some Mountain Rescue teams report that UAVs can slash search times up to 50 per cent.

    And drones support in rescue too

    A drone can track the return of the mountain rescue team back down to base providing live feeds and data back to coordinators who can take action if required. A UAV can monitor terrain on the route and enable controllers to guide rescue teams safely to the nearest road or path.

    Not only that, but a UAV can also be deployed to deliver supplies and essential equipment such as life vests or insulating materials both to casualties and Mountain Rescue personnel during an operation.

    Drones have even been used to deliver medical equipment to stranded people. This can enable them to sufficiently tend to their injuries so that they can make their own way to safety without the need for someone being sent to fetch them in treacherous conditions.

    With sufficient payload, a drone could even deliver a defibrillator to someone suffering a cardiac arrest. When fitted with a camera and speaker a remote paramedic can communicate with those near to the victim and deliver instructions while monitoring the patient’s condition.

    Almost every mountain rescue is a race against the clock. Drones accelerate search and rescue times to save lives. For example, nine out of ten people can survive an avalanche if they are rescued within the first fifteen minutes. Odds drop dramatically by the minute after that.

    Just as importantly, for anyone injured, lost and alone in the wilderness, the sudden whir of rotors up above and the sight of a flying machine with a camera attached provides reassurance that someone is coming. Think of any number of books and movies where the plucky survivor gazes hopefully to the heavens at the sight of a rescue aircraft or ship spotted on the horizon.

    Amazing drone Mountain Rescue stories

    Speaking of dramatisation, the increased adoption of drones in rescue operations is siring a series of stories of its own.

    In January 2020, a DJI Mavic 2 was used by the Washington County Search and Rescue team in an astonishing feat to bring to safety a 65-year-old woman who had badly fallen in Snow Canyon State Park. Injured at the top of the Island in the Sky sandstone butte, the search and rescue team planned to use a rope to assist her down the mountain. Easier said than done.

    It would take a team of four to carry all the rope needed up to the 40-story-high top and a special gun to shoot the rope could not reach high enough. So, the team deployed the DJI drone to deliver 660 ft of twine right to the correct spot and the lady was soon aided down to safety.

    It’s not only the recreational crag hoppers who owe their lives to a drone. Climbing legend Rick Allen was missing and presumed dead in 2018 when he fell 30 metres from a cliff in the Himalayas. A DJI Mavic drone was scrambled to locate the Piolet d’Or winner and the footage returned from the UAV quickly showed he was still alive.

    Thanks to the drone information relayed to rescuers, Allen was soon located and brought to safety. Hardly a rookie, Allen had been part of the team who in 1995 conquered the vast Mazeno Ridge – “the last great unclimbed route in the Himalayas.”

    And it’s not just humans who owe their lives to drones. In October 2019, a pilot from the newly-formed Search and Rescue Aerial Association – Scotland was called in to help find a missing dog who had become stranded on cliffs in Killin, Stirlingshire.

    With light fading, the drone located the collie within minutes and directed the Killin Mountain Rescue team. The chairperson of the Killin association would later reckon it would have taken his team eight hours to find the lucky pup had they not been able to utilise a drone.

    It’s also worth pointing out that a drone can significantly assist in the less heartwarming tales from the fells. A deployed UAV can scour an area in advance of sending out a party to identify a potential false alarm and drones have been successfully used to locate bodies in searches which otherwise would have required a huge human effort.

    And for when no one should even be on a mountain, never mind need rescuing…

    It’s not just assisting search and rescue that a drone can be deployed. When authorities need to restrict access to the mountains for safety reasons, it’s a drone they turn to. During the recent coronavirus pandemic, the High Mountain Gendarmerie Platoon in France used a Parrot Anafi to scan the peaks and paths for any stray trekkers and remind them of the lockdown rules implemented to slow the spread of the virus.

    The future of mountain rescue is airborne

    As payloads, battery life and audio-visual and sensor technology develop rapidly in the drone industry, a fleet of UAVs will become an integral part of Mountain Rescue teams around the world.

    Both the DJI Mavic series and Parrot’s Anafi models are small, foldable and powerful. Ready to go in minutes, capable of being transported in a backpack and with high-quality cameras and a host of optional additions, each can fly for 20 to 30 minutes and offer significant returns on investment for Mountain Rescue teams.

    Coptrz – Search & Rescue Solutions

    At COPTRZ, we have already worked with public sector and emergency services clients such as Devon & Cornwall Police and Dorset Police, Leicester Police, Air Accidents Investigation Branch and Kent Fire and Rescue Service, to provide tailored drone solutions for easier, faster, safer and more cost-effective operations.

    COPTRZ UAV Strategist for Public Safety, Sam Denniff, adds: “Working closely with of the emergency services and other key public sector organisations, we’re inspired every day by the work that they do, it’s a pleasure to be able to provide the equipment and tools they need for more effective practices, which in some cases can have a huge impact on saving lives.”

    Our industry expert Sam hosted a webinar recently talking all things drones for public safety, you can catch up here:

    If you work in the emergency services or specialise within public safety and are looking to incorporate drones into your operations COPTRZ are here to help, discuss your individual needs with Sam by booking a free consultation:




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