Innovate Blog: Are drones the future of lifesaving?

By Hannah Nobbs, RNLI Innovation Scout.

RNLI Innovation Scout Hannah Nobbs

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

RNLI Innovation Scout Hannah Nobbs

If I had a pound for every time someone contacts the Future Lifesaving Team at the RNLI and says: ‘I have an excellent idea – you should use drones!’ I would probably be able to fund a drone, a lifeboat, or at least new kit for one of our volunteer crew.  

The thing is, drones are exciting. They are not new; the term itself was used to describe unmanned aircraft that were flown remotely as targets for battleship gun practice in the 1920s. However, the miniaturisation of batteries and sensor technology has made unmanned aerial systems (UAS) increasingly affordable and therefore their value in many applications is being realised. This includes for recreation, by commercial organisations for aerial filming and surveying, and by emergency services as a tool to aid search and rescue. There is a lot of hype in this fast-growing sector; sorting through the noise to introduce the technology that can benefit operations is a challenge for many organisations.  

The benefit of unmanned aerial systems to lifesaving is likely to be huge. The delivery of life-preserving equipment to those in the water has been demonstrated recently, but imagine if we could also reduce risk to our volunteers by giving them an idea of the conditions at the rescue scene in advance, so they know what kit to have on hand on arrival. Perhaps the greatest impact for good will be if we can enhance chances of successful search to reach someone in distress more quickly, and to reduce the time that our volunteers are exposed to potentially risky environments.

A drone is tested for SAR purposes

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

The challenge for the wider UK search and rescue (UKSAR) community is: how to introduce a new capability in a way that provides the most benefit? The RNLI and HM Coastguard have been collaborating on exploration of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) for the past 18 months.  We talk about the ‘third dimension’ (the surface of the water and land being the first two dimensions), rather than just focusing on drones, because we are interested in how technology in the air interacts with the whole rescue system, from human/machine interfaces to the flow of information to the right people at the right time to successfully coordinate a rescue. 

What we did

Our journey started with the development of a collaborative roadmap, which combined the perspectives of SAR (search-and-rescue) operators, industry, academia and regulators to help identify a vision for a future where autonomous systems are used routinely by search and rescue crews. The roadmap can be found here.

Having identified gaps in knowledge that need to be overcome to reach this vision, the next part of the explorative journey was to try out various systems in a realistic environment. The UKSAR3D challenge was a week-long event in South Wales involving a variety of tethered, fixed-wing and multi-rotor drones. We collaborated with rescue personnel during multi-agency, simulated, representative search-and-rescue scenarios that included shoreline search, mud rescue and a communications blackspot.  

We also planned an offshore search combining drones and lifeboats to understand how these systems could interact. Due to a combination of technical issues and inclement weather, we didn’t get to collaborate with a lifeboat in a realistic search scenario. However, the building blocks of a potential future search capability were demonstrated by a successful flight, beyond visual line of sight, in segregated but busy civil airspace. We also developed a mutually agreed procedure to enable the drone to operate without impact to 24/7 emergency helicopter operations at St Athan. 

A 'casualty' is assisted after being found by a drone in a test

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

A 'casualty' is assisted after being found by a drone during the test event

What we learned

Our key takeaways were that:

  • there is an appetite from manufacturers and operators of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to improve their products through better understanding the SAR operating environment
  • the technology is mature enough to benefit localised operations, in particular to help rescue teams communicate in areas where terrain makes radio communication difficult. 

Realising the benefit from UAS is not something the RNLI can do alone, so don’t expect to be unceremoniously scooped from the sea by a rescue drone in the near future.  These are small but significant steps on an exciting journey for the future of saving lives from the air, so watch this space and occasionally, look up!