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Drones have huge potential in not only search and rescue

Drone and Rescue

Date: 06-10-2014
Author: Sam Totham

The very nature of drones, small, very mobile remote controlled robots, is that they can reach places that people cannot necessarily access. This is then staggeringly useful in natural disaster areas and other widespread destruction fallouts.

Either most people when they hear the word “drone” do not know what you are talking about or they picture the Army standard unmanned Predator type missile bearing aircraft. However, in the last few years drone research and interest has taken huge leaps forward, prompting the use of the remote flying machines in much more humanitarian roles. The attraction towards drone flying is easy to understand, lots of people have dreamt of flying at one point in their life (I assume), and so until the invention of flying cars or skateboards, looking through the eyes of the drone is as close as you can get. With the development of roughly 1,500 separate types of drone by manufacturers they can also be used for pretty much anything imaginable;

  • Armed forces reconnaissance
  • Delivery potential for remote/isolated locations
  • Survey and protection of farmland
  • Exploration of previously unknown forest/landmarks
  • Facebook’s ambitious ‘drone based’ global wireless internet
  • Hollywood filming companies for new camera shots
  • Search and rescue missions

The last point is the focus of this article, the nature of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis means that the areas become unreachable by conventional aid relief. While drones cannot necessarily contribute to heavy lifting or clearing debris, they provide something equally, if not more, important: Information.

Small ground-based drones on tether cables can provide rescuers with vital information about where to look for survivors, shortcuts for cars/bikes for aid relief, the state of the ground/building in terms of stability and the best way to approach any survivors. These robots are usually very robust miniature tanks, complete with video, audio and a sturdy tether cable for power and control commands from the operator. With the situations that they are usually sent into having a physical power cable is much more reliable, as well as good for dragging it back and letting it down drops.

Aerial drones are perfect for first responders to quickly survey the damage and target resources towards relevant areas, recently in addition to the standard video camera drones can be fitted with infra-red as well, using this new perspective to track down people and impact zones.

Drones are not just helpful in large-scale disasters though, because of the relatively low cost and learning time required to operate the tiny machines they are more and more frequently being called upon in domestic missing person’s cases. Most common in the USA where the sheer scale of some of the scenery dampens car or horseback searches civilian drone operators provide a cheaper and more flexible alternative to helicopters and fixed wing aircraft. In September this year Texas based search and rescues company Equusearch used three unmanned machines to search for a missing 23 year-old local woman. In Canada (also a country afflicted by an overabundance of open space), an aerial drone video was used to find a family who were lost hiking in a heavily wooded area.

Rules of using a drone? Pretty much none.

Of course the opposing side of this is that because drone technology is hard to define, and easily commercially available, then authorities are having difficulty deciding consistent laws that outline drone use. Airspace above 500 feet is reserved for planes and other aircraft, but beneath that line pretty much anything goes.

  • Is there a rule for neighbours flying a drone over your house?
  • Do police need a warrant to pilot a drone over your property in search of evidence?
  • If a drone videos something whilst on a completely separate search/case what is the viability of that recording?

These are just some of the questions that need answers if anyone is going to try to regulate drone use on a national level. Ignoring the legal confusion though (which currently most civilian drone operators do), both aerial and ground drones have huge potential for a wide array of implementations. With technology always on the increase, making smaller, cheaper, more powerful components then the drone industry will only go one direction, upward.

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