How Drones Are Reshaping The Future of Search and Rescue

Scores of public safety departments are turning to drones to assist in search & rescue missions and prevent future disasters

Thu Jul 11 2019 00:00:00 GMT+0000 (Coordinated Universal Time)

Drones are already a popular tool across a variety of industries, including agriculture, construction, oil and gas, mining, and alternative energies.  Companies have used them to survey land, assess crop health, and perform complex inspections. But over the past couple of years, drones have added another attribute to their already extensive resume: they are being utilized not only to improve safety and prevent future disasters, but, on several occasions, they’ve been instrumental in saving lives.

Already, the results are staggering: in 2017, an estimated 65 people had been rescued with the assistance of drone technology.  By June of 2018, that number skyrocketed to 133 people, reports DJI, the world's leader in civilian drones and aerial imaging technology.

Drones allow rescuers a way to find missing people, deliver supplies like food and life vests, and cut search and response times from hours to minutes.

Brendan Schulman picture Brendan Schulman, Vice President for Policy & Legal Affairs, DJI

Public Safety

On May 31 of last year, public safety departments recorded three separate search and rescue operations, which saved the lives of four people. This is the first time in history three consecutive drone rescues occurred in a single day.

  • Police in the United Kingdom used a drone with thermal imaging to find a missing, semiconscious man at the edge of a steep cliff face in Exmouth. 
  • From a drone, the Wayne Township Fire Department in Indiana dropped a life vest to a criminal suspect who had fled into a pond and was struggling to stay afloat. 
  • Public safety agencies in Hill County, Texas, dropped a life vest to a mother and her 15-year-old daughter who were stranded in a rising river.

Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Natural Disasters

Drones have been vital in locating survivors during natural disasters.  After the hurricanes struck in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, drones used thermal imaging to pinpoint the locations of people in need of rescue.  Drone efforts were even used after the 2017 earthquake in Mexico, helping locate dozens of missing persons trapped under wreckage and rubble.

In the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, drones were launched as part of an effort to survey flooded neighborhoods, recommend resource deployments, monitor levees, assess damage to bridges, roads, and power lines, and even predict further future flooding.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Fire Fighting

In November of last year, fires raged through California, making it the deadliest and most destructive fire on record.  The fires scorched more than 150,000 acres in less than two weeks. But, over the course of three days, 16 teams of public safety officials completed over 500 drone flights spanning 26.5 square miles.  This data was then used to aid search and rescue operations, assist with the planning and response to potential mudslides, pinpoint fire paths, and more efficiently tackle the fires.  

Drones equipped with thermal cameras were also used to help battle the South Fork Fire in Yosemite National Park.  The data could show crews when a fire had jumped a containment line and helped them avoid the dangerous conditions. "How guys get killed is weather changes on a dime, sometimes there's no real warning," said Tom Calvert, Menlo Park Fire battalion chief. "By having a drone, your sphere of awareness gets a lot bigger."

An Eye on Future Safety

Police stations are beginning to adopt drones for its plethora of uses.  Law enforcement officials in North Carolina, Texas, and Indiana are already looking to expand their drone programs. The LAPD just announced a desire to launch a massive drone operation after completing a successful year-long pilot program.

More fire departments are acknowledging their benefits, as well.  Back in 2014, only a handful of fire and rescue agencies were leveraging the use of drones.  Today, more than 180 fire departments have begun using drones for fire and rescue operations, with an additional 724 state and local police, sheriff, and emergency service agencies in the U.S. acquiring drones, according to a May 2018 report.

FEMA, also realizing its potential, have begun utilizing drone technology to predict mudslides and other natural disasters.  After Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, the FAA issued 137 authorizations for FEMA’s drone operations.  The FAA issued 132 more for Hurricane Irma and admitted the assistance of UAVs marked a “landmark in the evolution of drone usage.”

Drones cover far more area than a team of searchers on foot or in the sky, and their thermal imaging cameras can be used to peer through smoke, fog, darkness, and vegetation in order to find any victims.  Their effectiveness in search and rescue missions is paramount, and they are well on their way to proving their worth.


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