Drones for Search and Rescue | Learn How and Why They are Used Skip to main content

Drones provide unique capabilities that are leveraged by emergency service providers all over the world. They are already saving thousands of lives through participation in various public emergency and safety operations.

The 2020 COVID pandemic has accelerated the adoption of drones for public safety. When humanity was facing a worldwide lockdown, authorities in India used drones to monitor cities and enforce social distancing norms. Read the full case study on how an Indian startup helped authorities in the state of Gujarat to use drones via the country’s first drone command center.

When it comes to public safety, drones are used in a variety of use cases. But there is this one use case that catches peoples’ attention since the benefits are pretty straightforward. The use case we are talking about is search and rescue.

What is search and rescue?

Search and rescue (SAR) is a subset of public safety operations and involves activities revolving around finding missing people. It generally comes under the purview of the fire department in most countries. In the US, private SAR teams also exist; for example, Texas EquuSearch is a not for profit organization dedicated to search and rescue operations.

In 2019, a hiker got trapped on a ledge somewhere in the Snowy Canyon State Park, Utah. The mountain search and rescue operation happened at night using drones. SAR drones were used as a light source by the rescue team to locate the hiker. Similar to this, there are thousands of stories of how drones helped save precious lives.

Advantages of Drones for Search and Rescue (SAR)

Search and rescue operations are fairly difficult and unpredictable, unlike other public safety operations. These two factors play an important role in the overall outcome of a SAR mission:

  • Time: In most SAR missions, the missing person is trapped in a life-threatening situation, where the person has less time. So it becomes important for rescuers to find the person at the earliest.
  • Terrain: SAR missions outside human establishments can face challenging terrain in the form of a snowy mountain, rainforest,  etc. which might slow the entire operation.

Here are some of the reasons why SAR teams, all over the world, are using drones to overcome challenges in their work:

  • Drones are fast: Compared to ground-based vehicles, drones can reach a location a lot faster; even reach inaccessible places. For example, in the Czech Republic, there is an agency called the Mountain Rescue Service of the Czech Republic that uses drones to find missing people trapped by an avalanche.
  • Situational awareness: Drones provide cheap, fast access to aerial data of a large area.  This allows responders to map the entire search zone and pinpoint possible places where the missing person might be trapped.
  • Detect and identify:  Drones can carry different sensors that can be used for identifying ground objects. In the next section, we will discuss in detail how these sensors are used.
  • Communication: A drone, carrying a loudspeaker, can repeatedly broadcast a message making the missing person aware that people are looking for him/her.

How drones are used during search and rescue missions

The real power that drones provide to rescue operators is the easy access to aerial data of a large area, which gives the rescue team the ability to expedite the process of finding a missing person, where every second count.

What kind of data is useful in a search and rescue mission?

Drones can carry different types of payloads that can be used in different situations. Two of the popular payloads are the 4K wide-angle camera and the thermal camera that are extensively used during search and rescue missions. 

HD video from a drone is not that useful in a search and rescue mission, since the resolution is lost when looking at a still image. On the other hand, a high resolution still image can provide valuable information to the people on the ground looking for the missing person. This is why cameras that can capture high resolution still images are preferred. 

Thermal cameras are also used in search and rescue missions, especially during night time missions.

What is a thermal/IR camera?

A thermal/IR camera is a sensor that can detect a small section of electromagnetic waves called infrared. These are not part of the visible light that we can see.

Anything that has mass emits infrared radiation that can be captured using a thermal camera. The camera shows the image in different shades of color or grayscale to denote varying degrees of temperatures.

How thermal cameras are used in search and rescue missions?

In the year 2019, an 88-year-old man from Brownsville, Texas went missing on a Monday evening after leaving his home. When the family of the man informed the police about the disappearance, a local search and rescue team was formed with help from the police and fire department.

It was not until late at night that a local drone operator was involved. Around 11 PM, drone operator Desi Tristan spotted the old man near a field in tall grass.  The drone operator was scanning the area with a drone equipped with a thermal camera. The old man, identified as Luis Reyna Zuniga, suffered from an unspecified medical condition that led to this incident. 

Here are some popular drones used for search and rescue missions

A thermal camera is a pivotal part of any aerial search and rescue mission. Drones that can carry a thermal sensor and can fly for a considerable amount of time are preferred for such operations. Here are some popular models from DJI that are extensively used for public safety operations.

DJI search and rescue drones

How FlytNow enhances the capabilities of drones (UAVs) in search and rescue missions

FlytNow is a cloud-based drone fleet management system that provides a unified dashboard to control multiple drones along with the live streaming of video and telemetry data.

What problem does FlytNow solve?

The traditional use of manually operated drones during a search and rescue mission hinders the sharing of drone data among different agencies (fire, police, and EMS) and thus making collaboration difficult. The problem compounds when using multiple drones flown by multiple pilots. This is where FlytNow comes as a cloud solution that connects ground pilots with a web-based dashboard that aggregates all that data, making sharing of data easy, and provides a command center to manage all the drones. The below illustration shows how the solution works.

drones for public safety

How drones are connected to FlytNow?

FlytNow supports the popular DJI drones as well as custom drones based on PX4 and Ardupilot.

Connecting a DJI drone is easy. First, download the FlytNow mobile app and connect the mobile with the RC. The mobile connects the drone with the cloud application, allowing it to stream live data and video.

Connecting a custom drone requires a Single Board Computer (SBC) with the FlytOS operating system connected to the flight controller of the drone. The SBC establishes a connection between the drone and FlytNow via the internet over a WiFi or 4G/LTE/5G module.

Cloud solution for drones

Establish a command center using FlytNow Business

FlytNow Business is a standard offering that comes with useful features, for search and rescue missions, out of the box. The solution is suitable for setting up a command center to manage multiple drones during a search and rescue mission, which would yield some of the following benefits:

  • Members of the search and rescue team can access the drone data from their laptops or tablets since FlytNow provides a web-based dashboard over the cloud.
    drone command center for public safety operations
  • The dashboard comes with an advanced mission planner that can be used to automate the drones. Using this feature, a public safety officer can define the flight-path of the drones thus ensuring that a particular area is properly covered.drone fleet management for SAR
  • A drone pilot can broadcast live drone footage to multiple agencies and individuals having access to the dashboard.
    live streaming for search and rescue operations
  • FlytNow Business supports live video streaming from a thermal drone. The feed is further enhanced with the support of MSX (shows thermal images with sharp contrast and edges) and multiple color palettes including the popular isotherms. Using these features, an operator sitting at the dashboard can effectively analyze the video feeds from multiple thermal drones and locate the missing person(s) a lot faster.streaming footage from thermal drones
  • FlytNow Business supports a variety of payloads including the DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise & DJI M210/M300 RTK payloads. This makes the solution versatile, which can be used in a variety of situations.

FlytNow Enterprise for a fully automated drone-based response system

FlytNow Enterprise is a customizable solution that has all the features of FlytNow Business plus additional features. The solution is ideal for establishing a drone-based response system that is integrated with computer-aided dispatch systems like 911 and a network of drone stations, powered by Drone-in-a-Box technology.

automated drone-based response system

A response system like this would have the following capabilities:

  • An incoming emergency alert from a dispatch system like 911 can be routed to the FlytNow dashboard from where first responders can request a drone recon. This is possible because of the robust APIs of FlytNow Enterprise.
  • The response system can automatically dispatch a drone from a nearby drone station on request. The Enterprise version has extensive support for popular Drone–in-a-Box and charging pad solutions.
  • A drone can fly autonomously to an emergency location thanks to BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) capabilities of the Enterprise version and integration with UTM service providers like Airmap, Attitude Angel, etc..
  • During a mission, a drone can quickly perform a perimeter check and find people in distress with AI features like object detection. The drone can even land on top of a marked location using the precision landing feature.
  • Running a system like this would require data collection at a massive scale for compliance purposes. The Enterprise version has native integration with DroneLogbook that helps in recording and managing flight data and can generate automated reports for compliance purposes.

Summary

In this blog, we discussed the reasons why drones are a popular tool of choice in search and rescue missions, and how they are used. We also touched upon a few popular drones and payloads that are suitable for search and rescue operations. Finally, we ended by discussing how FlytNow as a solution enhances the capabilities of drones for public safety operations.

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FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

Q: How are drones changing search and rescue?

A: Time is of the essence in a search and rescue mission. Drones allow SAR teams to scan a large area fast, which turns the odds in their favor for a timely rescue.

Q: Will fleets of drones be the future of search and rescue?

A: Yes! Drones have already become an important part of public safety operations, because of their capabilities. Search and rescue is a subset of public safety operations.

Q: Will drones be useful in avalanche search and rescue tasks?

A: Drones are already being used in avalanches for searching missing people. In the Czech Republic, there is a nationwide agency called the Mountain Rescue Service of the Czech Republic that actively participates in rescuing people trapped by an avalanche. They rely on a response system based on a network of drones.

Q: What are the benefits of drones in search and rescue?

A: Drones provide cheap and fast access to aerial data, which allows responders on the ground to scan a large area in less time. Thus increasing the odds of finding the missing person in time.

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