Drones for Emergency Services: SAR, Fire, Police, Ambulance

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As quadcopters became widely adopted for use in aerial photography, it wasn’t long before drones for emergency services were tested and deployed.

At first, self-assembly low-fi versions began to appear on the hobby/enthusiast market, tending to excite great interest and public annoyance in equal measure. Today, we find that the UK’s emergency services have become aware of the inherent potential of UAS deployment. It seems these fixed-wing and multi-rotor machines may soon play a significant role in future emergency management – one major incentive being that saving time generally saves lives too.

Enhanced Emergency Intelligence and Response 

For police services, UAS surveillance and reconnaissance is perhaps a natural development of the role already undertaken by police helicopters. So rather than summoning remote aerial assistance, police teams can launch and control their own local UAS support for intelligence applications related to crowd control, missing persons, monitoring fleeing vehicles, and similar. 

Likewise, fire services use UAS aerial monitoring of larger-scale fires to locate the heart of the blaze, check for survivors or victims, remain in line-of-sight contact with fire-rescue teams, and quickly survey fire damage once a fire had been tackled.

In the event of persistent hazardous conditions such as prevail in the aftermath of a gas explosion, or the collapse of a large building, aerial cameras and/or thermal imaging are a quick and safe means of finding victims without risking further lives, and also establishing the nature and extent of the emergency – and thus the level of response required. 

With emergencies involving remote or inhospitable terrain, UAS support is invaluable for services such as our coastguards or mountain search-and-rescue teams. Again technologies such as remote cameras and thermal imaging would help to rapidly search and pinpoint the location of victims in cliff rescues, those trapped by incoming tides, or rescues at sea where victims may be unconscious or in the water.

Similarly, large areas of moorland and other potentially threatening landscapes could be efficiently searched at speed to find outdoor adventurers lost or stranded and in need of assistance. 

Ambulance services and other medical-response teams benefit from UAS capabilities when faced with major disasters where victims are not easily visible, in terrain where access is restricted, or when dealing with air crashes and similar incidents where the victims may well be spread across a wide area.

Missing Persons

When a person goes missing, time is of the essence. Search and rescue teams must move quickly to find the individual before it’s too late. Drones are increasingly being used in these situations, as they can cover a large area quickly and provide an aerial perspective of the search area. In some cases, drones are equipped with thermal cameras that can detect body heat, making them especially useful for finding missing persons in wooded or mountainous areas.

Search and rescue teams are also using drones to deliver supplies to remote locations, such as when hikers become stranded on a trail. By utilising these small but powerful machines, search and rescue teams can locate missing persons more quickly and efficiently – potentially saving lives in the process.

Early Examples of Drone Use

As emergency services worldwide began to commission or deploy a range of UAS support teams it soon become apparent that the investment was justified.

  • Canadian Police successfully located and rescued an unconscious driver using an infrared camera mounted on a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle);
  • Both Germany and Holland deployed ‘ambulance drones’ capable of rapidly deploying a life-saving defibrillator for those suffering heart attacks in wilderness locations;
  • A US-developed UAV delivered urgent medical supplies in third-world countries;
  • A UAV development, known as ‘InstantEye’, delivered a mobile phone to trapped victims thus enabling them to communicate with rescuers.

Disaster Management 

UAS capability continues to expand at a rapid pace, and new sensory equipment can now assess levels of chemical contamination, recognise the sound of gunfire, and even detect and measure radiation hazards.

UAVs of the future have become powerful disaster-management tools used, for example, to overfly and map disaster zones to inform decisions about which locations are most in need of support, and also to configure the best routes through the zone which emergency-response vehicles should follow to avoid major obstructions.

Drones can cover a large area quickly, and they can be equipped with thermal cameras to find people who might be trapped under debris. In addition, drones can be used to deliver emergency medical supplies. In many cases, a drone is a difference between life and death.

As disaster management teams continue to develop new ways to use drones, it is clear that they will play an increasingly important role in saving lives.

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