Drones revolutionize search and rescue operations in Scotland

Outfitted with thermal cameras, spotlights, loudspeakers, and radio handsets, drones revolutionize operations in Scotland, in the United Kingdom.

Drones revolutionize rescues and search operations in Scotland

Small foldable drones weighing less than three pounds are revolutionizing search and rescue operations in the Scottish Highlands.

Search and rescue teams in Scotland have begun to use drones, such as the DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise Advanced that can be equipped with spotlights, loudspeakers, thermal cameras, and even radio handsets to look for missing climbers and hikers in often dangerous and isolated terrain across the Highlands, reports The Guardian.

Drones Revolutionize Search And Rescue Operations In Scotland
On the right, Mike Smith the chief drone pilot accompanied by Jim Cooper, a drone pilot in training. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

The drones allow the search and rescue teams to search for people in inaccessible gullies and remote areas much faster and safer than before.

The 28 volunteer rescue teams in Scotland have embraced the unmanned aircraft over the last year and have recently used the devices in the search for missing people and casualties on Ben Nevis, the southern uplands, in Fife, and the Trossachs.

Team leader John Stevenson for the Lochaber mountain rescue team in Fort William, which covers Ben Nevis said, “The drones are definitely an asset, there's no doubt about it. We're putting drones into places where years ago we might have thought twice about putting people in.”

Stevenson's team now operates four drones.

Experts believe that drones will soon be able to create cell phone coverage that would allow rescue teams to pick signals from missing hikers in areas that are mobile dead zones.

In recent years we have seen companies like AT&T use tethered drones to restore mobile networks in disaster-stricken areas. Bringing such technology to smaller drones would be a breakthrough.

Drones have the potential to transform rescues and search operations, said Tom Nash, the founder of the Search and Rescue Aerial Association Scotland (Saraa), a non-profit organization that trains drone pilots.

Drones Revolutionize Search And Rescue Operations In Scotland
Jim Copper launching a DJI Mavic 2 Zoom drone. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian
Drones Revolutionize Search And Rescue Operations In Scotland 1

Training drone pilots for search and rescue teams

Nash is a former RAF Tornado navigator who became a commercial drone pilot and has since helped to train 15 volunteers with eight search and rescue teams across Scotland to become certified drone operators.

The Saraa organization has six drones operational that were put into use four times in 2020 and 15 times in 2021. Other teams such as Glen Coe and Lochaber have their own unmanned aircraft.

Nash said that “Risk reduction is a key use of a drone. Previously where someone has needed to do a rope rescue or a stretcher lift, you would have some poor person dangling over the edge of a cliff, roped back, peering over saying ‘I think we should put the rope down here.”

“Well now, just put the drone 20 yards out the other side of the cliff and look back, you can see where the casualty is. And our rope experts can say ‘our safest rope line is here down to here'. You can floodlight that at night. We can put a speaker on and if we know it's going to be a while, we can speak to the casualty and say help is on the way, ‘give us a thumbs up if you're OK but can't move'. That's a really critical use.”

In 2020, the 24 member teams of the Scottish Mountain Rescue organization were called into action 671 times.

The Scottish search and rescue teams are limited in how they can deploy drones, for instance, there are height restrictions and the aircraft can only be flown within line of sight. This also means that drones cannot be used in low visibility situations such as fog and rain.

Drones Revolutionize Search And Rescue Operations In Scotland
Back at the base, Mike Smith reviews the DJI Mavic 2 Zoom's footage. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Drones outperform search and rescue teams on foot

The rescue teams cannot use the drones when manned aircraft, such as search and rescue helicopters, are in the vicinity.

The Lochaber search and rescue team has found out that drones can cover a hillside much faster than a search team on foot when unmanned aircraft are programmed to perform a systematic search of the area.

Stevenson said about the drones, “They're terrific. You can get a bird's eye view of where you are.”

His team had seen drones being used by rescue teams in the French Alpes

Dji Mavic 2 Zoom In Action
DJI Mavic 2 Zoom in action. Close up photo by Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian
Drones Revolutionize Search And Rescue Operations In Scotland 2

Nash added that drones could become even more valuable to search and rescue teams as the technology evolves. For instance, they could copy the communications firm OpenReach, which uses drones fitted with 4G phone equipment to create mobile coverages over dead zones.

Larger unmanned aircraft could also be used in the future to deliver supplies and equipment to casualties or rescue teams in hard-to-reach areas.

Nash said, “It's so exciting because drones can and will revolutionize things.”

Read more about how drones are used for good here on DroneXL.

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Haye Kesteloo
Haye Kesteloo

Haye Kesteloo is the Editor in Chief and Founder of DroneXL.co, where he covers all drone-related news, DJI rumors and writes drone reviews, and EVXL.co, for all news related to electric vehicles. He is also a co-host of the PiXL Drone Show on YouTube and other podcast platforms. Haye can be reached at haye @ dronexl.co or @hayekesteloo.

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