Technology Is Revolutionising Search and Rescue Operations In The UK – Unmanned Aircraft (UAV)

You won’t have failed to notice that advances in technology in all aspects of our lives continues at a pace that no one would have ever imagined 20 years ago. Whether it is smart device app’s for turning your oven or heating on before you arrive home, ordering a takeaway which will be delivered to your home, booking a holiday on-line, driverless cars or military drone technology to name but a few.

If you are a keen follower of search and rescue news you may have read recently that the HM Coastguard in conjunction with Bristow (provider of the HM Coastguard helicopter Search and Rescue Service) rolled out a weekend unmanned aircraft (UAV) service across North Wales.

The unmanned aircraft (UAV) will provide ‘overwatch’ safety patrols from it’s base at Aberporth airport across beaches in North Wales including the Snowdonia mountain ranges. HM Coastguard’s helicopters provide support for inland search and rescue which includes mountainous areas, inaddition to the coastal environments and the UAV will be deployed to supplement these.

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The Director of HM Coastguard, Claire Hughes said: “Search and rescue is about saving lives. Every second counts and every minute saved can prove the difference between life and death. This kind of technology has a big part to play in those moments alongside our helicopters, coastguard rescue teams and our partners from the RNLI to independent lifeboats and hovercraft.”

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Coastguard Helicoper – photo credit Dawn Kandekore

Russ Torbet, Director UK Search and Rescue, Bristow Helicopters Ltd, said: “UAV technology has advanced to the stage where its deployment significantly enhances the capability of air search and rescue operations, improving the reach of the service and reducing risk for the public and our crews.

 

Russ Torbet added “These systems provide us with an option to keep our Sikorsky S92 helicopter crew at Caernarfon on standby for lifesaving events, while the unmanned aircraft are tasked with providing safety ‘overwatch’ and monitoring which those manned aircraft would otherwise have been sent to carry out”.

Test flights have also been carried out during September 2020 using the Elbit Systems Hermes 900 as part of a program of events in West Wales.  Among the advanced capabilities of the Hermes 900 UAV, which can fly for up to 24 hours at a time, is a system to deliver up to four six-person life rafts from an altitude of 600ft. Elbit the defence manufacturer says that it can deploy “in adverse conditions day and night” where a helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft could not help.

The Hermes UAV’s as trialled recently are not yet being deployed on ‘live’ operations, but are inaddition to the live trial currently being conducted by the use of remotely piloted aircraft by Bristow’s.

Back in July 2019, the HM Coastguard and RNLI trialled drones along the Essex coast in a year-long programme instigated by their county’s police force who are UK pioneers in the deployment of UAV’s.

HM Coastguard Teams from Walton, Clacton, Mersea Island, South Woodham Ferrers, Southend and Canvey Island took part, supported by a range of inshore and all-weather lifeboats and hovercraft strategically placed at six RNLI stations along the county coastline.

Will Roberts, Senior Innovation Manager at the RNLI, says, “The situational awareness that drones provide can play a significant role in helping us locate casualties more quickly. When lives are at risk, the speed at which our lifeboat crews can locate and reach a casualty is vital. It also allows potentially dangerous situations to be risk-assessed before our teams are deployed to the scene.”

In 2018, the HM Coastguard and RNLI ran a week long trial at St Athan in Wales testing a variety of UAV’s including: rotary platforms, tethered drones and fixed wing platforms launched via a runway or catapult.  Using a variety of different simulated rescue scenairo’s:  mud rescue, shore-line search for a casualty, off-shore search for multiple casualties in the sea; and a communications blackspot where a drone is required to relay information between rescue teams and a cliff rescue.

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Photo credit: Greenock Coastguard Team

Six different industry partners and organisations supported the above trial including: University of Bath, Lockheed Martin UK and Scisys.

In 2017 Caister Independent Lifeboat in Norfolk tested drones as part of their rescue work.  A short video of their trial can be found below:

 

The UK government has said that it expected unmanned aircraft to fulfil an increasingly important role in search and rescue when it awards a new contract for the service in 2022.

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Photo credit: Greenock Coastguard Rescue Team

Conclusion

Other Blue Light Services and Lowland Search and Rescue Teams have been deploying drones/UAV’s operationally for some time now with a good success rate.  With technological advances, significant investment and a proactive approach to SAR capability it can be argued that we are going to see UAV’s playing a larger role in the UK’s maritime search and rescue scene.  Coastguard Rescue Teams and lifeboat crews will always be essential in performing rescue operations at the coast, UAV’s will have their limitations,  but any extra piece of rescue kit which will enhance and help save more lives at sea can only be a huge step in the right direction.

Please note

The operation of drones is strictly controlled by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) which requires licenses and qualifications.  The use of private drones close to search and rescue operations or an emergency service incident is strictly forbidden and could hamper someone’s life being saved.  For all information on drone operations please go to the CAA website

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Ramsgate All Weather Lifeboat Photo credit: Ramsgate RNLI

Acknowledgements

Maritime Coastguard Agency

Bristow

Elbit

Royal National Lifeboat Institution