There’s a new member of the North Shore Rescue (NSR) team, but it’s smaller than their standard highly-trained team member.
As one of the busiest search and rescue organizations in the country, they can use the help. While the team of volunteers averages 80 to 90 calls per year, last year they responded to about 135 calls. This year it looks like they may get even more than that. To put those numbers into perspective, most of the other SAR teams in the area get fewer than 50 calls per year.
“The number of calls we go on forces us to get better and to develop tools,” explains Curtis Jone
s, the volunteer team member who heads up the drone program. “Drones are a relatively underutilized technology in BC. A number of teams have looked at it and played with it, but it’s still in that early development and proof-of-concept stage here.”
Jones says they haven’t yet had an opportunity to use the new technology – a DJI Phantom 3 – but they already have members on their team who are well versed in its use. One of their team members is an electrical engineer with his own UAV, who has flown RC aircraft for well over a decade. Another flies RC helicopters regularly. Jones himself is a trained aircraft maintenance technician, and he’s spent time flying unmanned radio-controlled vehicles as well. “It’s really kind of a natural progression for some of our members, and then there are a few people who are interested in learning, so we’re all going to be developing as a group.”
And although the drone serves an important function on the team, Jones says that it’s not about to replace any flesh and blood team members.
“The helicopter has a very specific role in SAR, and that includes transporting manpower and resources,” he explains. “With a drone, even if you spot someone you still have to get them out.”
As it stands, drones aren’t exactly a disruptive technology to SAR. A helicopter pilot is a member of the team that knows the terrain and is trained to search. They’re also able to get manpower into areas difficult to access on the ground. “A drone serves a purpose up to a point. You could eventually use it to take a payload in to a patient or deploy a defibrillator – something like that – but to move up to a personnel-carrying capacity, I don’t see that on the horizon,” says Jones.
So what is it used for? For NSR, the drone serves a very narrow but important focus – searching an isolated boulder field where you suspect a person may have fallen. “We would be using it to look out over a ledge, using it to look out over a cliff, to see what’s below the cliff, to look into a canyon where you don’t want to put people because it’s too risky, or this isolated boulder field where you can fly in a grid pattern and then review the footage.”
This is just the first iteration of drone technology – as such, it has some limitations. Temperature, wind speed, time aloft, weather and range are all factors that limit how effective their drone can be.
“If you lose telemetry with it, it’s not autonomous in the sense that it can’t avoid obstacles. It just goes up into the air and hopefully comes back to your home point,” says Jones. “So we go from this very basic – but at the same time very advanced – piece of technology, and I think it’s just going to be a progression from there.”
So what does that progression look like? According to Jones, the next stage could be equipping a drone with an infrared sensor.
“That would be for more of the urban rescue and ridge rescue stuff where we’d go up and try to potentially spot an infrared signature,” says Jones. “That technology has come down in price and has become available through the commercial market right now, but we want to make sure we have a solid proof of concept before we start fundraising to do something like that. It’s costly, and we’re a nonprofit made up of volunteers – we have to be very careful about what we spend money on.”
Where Jones anticipates the big leap in technology that would affect how efficient his team is would be an autonomous drone, capable of searching on its own.
Jones imagines a scenario where they take the drone and place it in front of their command vehicle. They push a button, and it flies away, searching a grid pattern on its own, with no operator input. When it spots the person they’re looking for, it gives the location, and the SAR team moves in for the rescue.
“I think once you get the ability for something to just take off, fly, look and use some form of AI to judge what it’s seeing with its sensor package, day or night, in any weather – that’s where you would see a disruption in how we search,” says Jones. “Something you can just put up in the air and get intel from.”
Jones added that assistance they receive from the public and companies like Shaw Sabey and Associates and Drone Insurance Depot is important for their team. “The biggest thing for us is the support we get from people like your company really aids us in this. It’s a very costly market to be entering and as a volunteer search and rescue team we rely on the public for donations.”
Drone Insurance Depot is a proud supporter of the NSR drone program.