UK MCA and RNLI test drones for search and rescue

Image credit: RNLI / Nigel Millard
Image credit: RNLI / Nigel Millard

The UK Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA) and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) have run a special week-long event to test the use of drones along a stretch of coastline at St Athan, Wales. The testing took place between 23 and 27 April. A selection of drones were used in four different search and rescue scenarios to explore how they could be used to help save lives in the future.

The scenarios were a shoreline search for a casualty, an offshore search for multiple casualties in the sea, a mud rescue and a communications blackspot where a drone is required to relay information between rescue teams and a casualty on a cliff.

Featuring RNLI lifeboats and an HM coastguard search and rescue helicopter, the scenarios explored evaluated the potential impact of using drones (or Unmanned Aerial Systems) on operations. Particular attention was given on how drones can work together with existing search and rescue teams and assets to enhance lifesaving capability and reduce risk to rescue teams.

Hannah Nobbs, from the RNLI’s innovation team, said:
The aim of this event is to provide realistic scenarios and an authentic operating environment to explore the use of drones in multi-agency operations. We hope this will allow us to understand the benefits and limitations of their use in search and rescue activity. This week-long test event is the culmination of around two years of work, where we’ve explored the use of drones in collaboration with key search and rescue partners and industry experts.

Phil Hanson, aviation technical assurance manager at the MCA, added:
There is significant evidence emerging from our overseas counterparts and more locally from UK mountain rescue teams indicating that drones can play a crucial role in emergency response…It’s too early to comment on how we will move forward from the trials but one thing we all agree on is that drones cannot replace helicopters, coastguard rescue teams or lifeboats. However, it is entirely possible that they could be an additional tool to use in search and rescue.

Six different industry partners supported the event and participating industry partners included Lockheed Martin UK, Scisys and the university of Bath. A variety of drones were used in the scenarios, including rotary platforms that offer stability for electro-optic and thermal sensor payloads, a tethered drone and fixed wing platforms that are runway or catapult launched.

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