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Bringing Situational Awareness to Search
& Rescue Teams with Drone Technology
June 21, 2022
Drones and automation are moving the world of search and rescue forward, as an advanced search tool that aids the human eye. Worldwide, more and more search and rescue organizations are turning to drone technology for this precise, birds-eye viewpoint. Hjálparsveit skáta í Reykjavík, Iceland’s oldest land search and rescue team, is no different — today, the group uses drone technology for general operational improvements and efficient missing persons detection. In fact, drone mapping has become a critical tool for search and rescue volunteers when deploying a mission. Read on to learn how the technology's ease-of-use and quality of data both lend to a more streamlined search effort.
The human is usually the weakest link because we get distracted, but automation is the way to go. DroneDeploy is a very good tool for us.”
David Oddsson, Drone Operations Manager, Hjálparsveit skáta í Reykjavík
Locating Missing Persons with Drone Software
In 2015, Ólafur Jón Jónsson (Óli), a volunteer with Reykjavik search and rescue (REY-SAR), purchased a drone solely as a hobbyist, inspired to pursue a personal passion. Soon after, he began to notice the parallels in his doings as a drone enthusiast, and his operations as a search and rescue volunteer. Convinced of the technology’s real-world applications, Óli started experimenting with his drone at work, and lobbying his friends and colleagues to join in. “Many incident managers said, ‘we don’t need drones,’” Óli explained, “but perceptions shifted as we saw more use cases.”
Over time, and with many on-hand demonstrations, Óli’s team embraced his passion project. Flying the drone themselves, and seeing the value-add that came from efficient photo collection and map creation convinced them to implement the technology. David Oddsson, Drone Operations Manager and member of the organization’s board, stated, “Óli has contributed a lot to changing the perception of our group. He pushed very hard to use drones in the beginning.” These persistent efforts resulted in faster, more efficient search and rescue operations for all.
Today, Hjálparsveit skáta í Reykjavík has an entire drone team that works with on-the-ground operators to quickly and safely complete missions. Óli told us that drones are deployed whenever they can be, weather permitting. Just last year, the team responded to 73 incidents — and of those, a drone team came along in nearly a third. While the group usually deploys 1-2 drone groups each mission, sometimes 3 is necessary. DroneDeploy’s simplicity and ease-of-use make it an integral part of the volunteers’ current workflow.
DroneDeploy is the best platform I’ve used for flight mapping. It’s much better than other programs because it’s so much more approachable — not too many dials or sliders.”
Ólafur Jón Jónsson, Volunteer, Hjálparsveit skáta í Reykjavík
Flight Planning for Repeated Missions
Like many search and rescue teams worldwide, Hjálparsveit skáta í Reykjavík engages in the all-important task of body recovery. Reuniting families with the bodies of the deceased is often an essential step in receiving closure, but finding these missing persons can be challenging. Nevertheless, Óli said, “Searching for a body is always very rewarding and an important part of our mission.” Involving a body of water adds to the mystery, as the rapidly-changing landscape can delay both location and retrieval for days, months, or even years.
To account for this challenge, Óli utilizes pre-programmed flights in DroneDeploy that he uses for this specific task. Before deploying an entire team of volunteers, Óli now scans the area with his drone first, cutting down on critical resources. “Because I am not flying the drone manually, I can focus on the pictures on the Live Map. With the flight plans and maps, we save a lot of time because when we get on site, we can deploy immediately. Flight plans also provide uniformity to what we do, so every time we use them, we get the same results,” Óli added.
Adding Situational Awareness to On-the-Ground Operations
In many search and rescue operations, Óli’s team is often arriving at a new place with little context or previous experience in the area. By using DroneDeploy’s Live Map capabilities, the team is now able to receive a referencable, reliable map for better situational awareness. Presently, for each call that comes in, both on-the-ground volunteers and aerial flight operators work in tandem to locate missing persons. As the expeditionary team is hiking to their location, drone pilots provide direction and assistance. “We can provide an overview of the site with a drone for incident commanders, which enables them to more accurately focus their efforts. This is very valuable to those who command and organize operation management,” David clarified.
The Future of Safe, Autonomous Flight
The first rule of search and rescue teams is to be aware of their own security and safety. The crew must not put themselves in harm's way — after all, if they get injured, they have to get rescued as well. In the past, Óli’s team struggled with remote beaches, slippery rocks, cliff faces, and overall, difficult terrain that was not conducive to a safe operation. But by using DroneDeploy, teams instead search waterfront and other unsafe areas from the air first. In the future, David predicts that Hjálparsveit skáta í Reykjavík will exclusively use drones for these types of missions, and remove all ground crew deployments.
"Automation is the way to go in search operations. DroneDeploy's easy-to-use interface makes it easy for people with diverse technical backgrounds to quickly and precisely define a search area, deploy the drone, and collect hundreds of photos that are then scrutinized by team members," Óli said, "The certainty that the entire search area has been fully covered in less time than a manually controlled flight would yield makes us confident in our work and inspires us to do more, do better."
We’re proud to support Hjálparsveit skáta í Reykjavík’s important work in locating and rescuing mission persons. If you’re interested in exploring drone data for disaster relief, download our free eBook, or click here to learn more about our drones for good program.