Drones are a tool and like any tool, wisdom must be exercised when and how to use them. Misuse at best is ineffective; at worst it may be disastrous. There is no magic drone currently on the market that guarantees SAR success. Drones are not a panacea for search & rescue operations. At the same time, Search and Rescue is among the industries heavily affected by the use of drones. Search times can be significantly reduced while limiting potential risk to the party being rescued as well as rescuers. There are many options and benefits to using drones for search and rescue. Almost all commercial drones come equipped with GPS, allowing the pilot to offer rescue teams the exact GPS coordinates of the subjects once they have been spotted. With the live camera view feature of any drone used for search and rescue, the pilot can also guide rescue crews to their location.
Drone pilots can search large areas quickly, identify a person in distress by thermal signature, assess their status, and environment with high definition video, and communicate in real time to ground resources the location of the victim, ground accessibility conditions, and other information critical to ground resource assets trying to reach victims. While specialized drone SAR platforms such as the DJI Matrice 210 or Anafi Thermal have a proven track record of saving lives, smaller drones can be quite effective and often deployed much faster. Our goal at DSAR is to help any licensed drone pilot become more effective in SAR operations utilizing their own drone, no matter the model. A Grid Search is a Grid Search no matter the drone. An FPV Search is independent of drone make. We welcome all makes of drone.
Successful use of a drone as a SAR tool relies far more on training and procedures than on the particular type of aircraft or payload. A successful SAR mission begins (1) with actionable intelligence on the missing person(s) including their last known location, (2) their stated intents, (3) their personal habits, (4) a well-trained SAR team, (5) a strong incident commander, and (6) optimal terrain, environment, and weather.
Time savings delivered by a drone in a SAR operation can be significant in challenging geographic terrain (i.e., steep cliffs, floods, rivers, swamps, desert, etc.) But in a densely forested area, the best drone in the world will have a difficult time locating a missing person with either a visual or even a thermal camera. A dense vegetative canopy can make it quite challenging to effectively view the ground.
Launching a drone does not guarantee a fast and positive outcome; the aircraft alone is not a reliable predictor of success. The real keys to a successful SAR drone operation are (1) specialized pilot training, (2) selecting the best combination of aircraft, payload, technology, and tactics, (3) a trained ground team and (4) solid incident onsite command structure.
SAR drone pilots may find themselves called into a "bandaid" multiagency incident characterized by a lack of organization and team effort. In such cases, the best use of the drone may well be to keep it on the ground until a solid mission plan and operational structure is in place. Given the limited flight time (i.e., batteries), there is not much sense in launching a drone when it has a low probability of success.
The European Emergency Number Association found that while a five-person rescue team on foot needs an average of two hours to find a victim in one square kilometer, a drone can do the job in 20 minutes or less while taking additional active steps to achieve a successful rescue.
In 2018 the European Emergency Number Association, DJI and Black Channel put drones to the field test in a series of simulated search-and-rescue scenarios in Ireland and Wales. They found that while drones can find subjects faster than ground teams, protocols and procedures must be developed to make the most of the aerial perspective.
Key findings from the study included:
Planning and developing a search strategy before executing the flight is essential.
Drone teams can take longer to prepare and execute many parts of the SAR mission.
Success was less dependent on previous team familiarization and more likely when ad hoc flight team members had standardized training.
Search crews wanted more information about the missing person, including more backstory and victim familiarization, to help guide their flight operations and strategy.
Drones are a great tool, but UAS pilots can't save lives by themselves. Teamwork and training matter. And that's what DSAR is all about.