June 29, 2023

How Drones Are Used for Search and Rescue

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drones for search and rescue team

When it comes to search and rescue operations, it is crucial to locate missing individuals as quickly as possible. There is little time to waste when someone’s life could be at risk. While rescue teams are wholly aware of this fact, they are quite limited in terms of their ability to find people quickly without an aerial perspective. For this reason, the use of drones for search and rescue is becoming more and more prevalent.

The drawbacks of search and rescue operations without a drone

Search and rescue missions often consist of teams walking or driving in a straight line while looking around for missing people, but this technique only allows for a limited amount of coordination and terrain covered.

In fact, these teams may even have difficulty accessing remote or inaccessible areas safely —for example, if the terrain is rocky, hilly, has cliffs, rivers or larger bodies of water. Furthermore, there is only so much that human eyes can see or detect from a vantage point on the ground. Fortunately, drones can be used for search and rescue operations to help locate missing persons, to make it safer for rescue teams to do their job, and ultimately, to help save the lives of those in danger.

The benefits of drones in search and rescue missions

There are a number of benefits in using drones for search and rescue operations, which is why drones are becoming increasingly indispensable in these missions. One of the main advantages is the enhanced aerial coverage that drones can provide, as compared to a human rescue team alone—or even a human rescue team with access to a helicopter.

skydio x2 flying over debris

Drones can cover large areas in a short amount of time, and provide real-time visual data to rescuers. They can also access areas that may be difficult for rescue personnel to reach, due to factors such as terrain and weather conditions. Specifically, drones such as the Skydio X2 can fly high above an area, as well as down low, accessing hard-to-reach locations that rescue teams cannot see or reach safely.

Having a quickly deployable drone allows you to cover a lot more ground with less people. Using drones for these missions is relatively low in cost, as compared to a rescue team with several people, and especially as compared to using a helicopter to search from above.

Thermal drones are the best drones for search and rescue operations

Drones with thermal cameras are particularly useful for finding a missing person because of their ability to detect heat and temperature differences through thermal imaging. Human skin emits heat that human eyes cannot see but a thermal drone can detect it. The Skydio X2, for example, uses infrared camera sensors to make these temperature differences visible. This infrared radiation detection feature is what makes the drones able to capture and analyze the thermal energy emitted by humans, and ultimately, detect a missing person.

When flying a drone early in the morning or late in the day, at a time when it is not too hot, the temperature of a person’s skin will stand out much more than vegetation, rocks or water—making it much easier to find missing persons. Thermal drones cannot see through objects, but they can detect when thermal energy is being radiated between different materials.

A deeper dive into search and rescue drone technology

When thermal drones are used for search and rescue missions, they use an infrared sensor to process infrared radiation, which is invisible to the human eye. The sensor processes the infrared radiation coming from an environment and turns it into an image that humans can see using color.

Thermal images look different depending on the color palettes used. The most popular color palettes for search and rescue missions are white hot and black hot. In this case, the object giving off the most heat will appear white and the object giving off the least amount of heat will be black, or it might be the other way around, and everything else will appear a different shade of gray.

thermal drone search and rescue

The white hot and black hot palette works best when using drones for search and rescue because it highlights the greatest temperature differences, which helps rescue teams identify humans as quickly as possible.

What sets Skydio drones apart for search and rescue missions?

The Skydio X2 is one of the best drones on the market for search and rescue missions largely because it can fly above or below the treeline with ease, can patrol large areas, and has a thermal camera.

skydio x2 launching

Many other drones cannot fly near trees or other obstacles without a perfect line of sight because they may crash into something, marking a huge benefit of Skydio drones for search and rescue operations.

Piloting a drone is much simpler than most people realize

While many people are under the impression that it is difficult to be a drone pilot, it is actually quite easy to operate a Skydio thermal drone. In the past, individuals had to become expert drone pilots with a significant amount of hours of experience to perform simple operations like search and rescue.

search and rescue deployment

Thanks to new technology and smart design, drones such as the Skydio X2 are now extremely user friendly and accessible. Operators do not need special skills or experience to fly; they can truly be operated by anyone, no matter their skill level. In fact, these drones are quite difficult to crash because of Skydio’s best-in-class autonomous functionality allowing the drone to see in all directions at once.

Operating these drones is no different than learning to use a new screwdriver or drill, and are commonly said to be easier to operate than a smart phone. They come with automated features to assist in search and rescue missions like; automated search grids, visual return to home, and subject detection, that all make a difference when performing a search from the sky.

skydio navigation cameras

How drones are used in search and rescue mission from a technical perspective

When it comes to search and rescue missions, it's important to note that there are various types of situations. For instance, a rescue mission could involve a person stuck on the side of a cliff, where the primary goal is to safely extract them. In such cases, drones can play a crucial role. While the advantages mentioned earlier, such as aerial perspective and real-time monitoring, apply here as well, there are additional advantages specifically relevant to teams that have to hike significant distances before commencing the operation.

One advantage is the size and portability of drones. These devices can be compact and lightweight, making them easily transportable for teams that need to cover considerable distances on foot. The ability to carry a drone in a backpack or a small case ensures that the rescue team can bring the necessary equipment without adding excessive burden to their journey.

From a technical grid search perspective, the process typically involves collecting drone footage, monitoring the situation, and employing the acquired data effectively. Once a drone is deployed, it will navigate the designated area using a lawnmower pattern. By flying back and forth, the drone scans the terrain systematically, ensuring comprehensive coverage of the area in question. This method enables the drone to capture crucial information that can aid in locating and assisting individuals in distress.

The rescue team member operating the drone will be in a nearby vehicle, and they will use an HDMI to project the drone’s visuals onto a larger screen for improved visibility. With Skydio drones, there is the advantage of a Skydio Cloud, which allows for the drone’s video feed to be live-streamed online so people in other locations, such as a command center, can observe the footage and make decisions based on what they see.

drone live feed

The footage can also be recorded and reexamined after the fact to ensure no important details are overlooked.

The Skydio X2 drone features a GPS that shares its exact location on the screen that is being monitored by rescue teams. As it is flying, there is also a satellite map overlay of where the drone is, so its exact location is always clear.

If someone is identified as needing to be rescued, depending on the location of that person, the rescue team might be able to easily go out to wherever the person in need is located using the GPS. Or, if the environment has obstacles and is difficult to traverse, the drone can help rescue teams plan a safe route to the individual.

How drones make it safer for rescue teams to do their job

The benefits of using drones for search and rescue operations extend beyond the advantages for those being rescued; they also make the process safer for rescue teams. Drones can help reduce the risks faced by search and rescue teams by providing preliminary information about the situation before deploying ground personnel.

Specifically, rescue missions often take place in extremely cold and snowy environments, so drones make it safer for teams by preventing them from having to walk through these freezing environments for long periods of time. The same is true for extremely hot and humid environments. In some places, dangerous wildlife, such as ticks and snakes, could be living in the grass or the bushes, and drones make it so that individuals do not have to put themselves at risk by walking in these potentially dangerous environments.

When conducting rescue missions near rivers with fast-moving water and steep embankments that are hard to see, drones can help rescue teams find individuals who may have fallen over the edge and are holding on but are not visible from the ground. Overall, drones help teams to cover more terrain in a safer way, protecting them from extreme heat, extreme cold, potentially dangerous bodies of water, and wildlife.

Thermal drones as the ideal complementary tools in search and rescue missions

To summarize, conducting search and rescue missions without the use of drones can present a number of dangers to the individuals involved, and it can be difficult to search a very large area in a short period of time. When drones are used for search and rescue missions, many of these challenges can be averted.

Drones, such as the Skydio X2, are ideal for search and rescue operations thanks to its thermal capabilities, as well as it’s obstacle avoidance, enabling it to access hard-to-reach locations without the risk of crashing and venture into dangerous environments so people do not have to—unless absolutely necessary. Drones serve as indispensable tools to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of search and rescue missions, and can, ultimately, save lives.

Learn more about how Skydio drones can improve the outcomes of your search and rescue operations.

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