Using Drones in the Rescue Service

All things in rescue evolve and change. Materials used in construction of rescue tools improve, technologies change, as do the applications of technologies to effect rescues. It is inevitable and it is a given: things change. However, physics is physics, since the beginning of time, and physics can be relied upon to function every time — assuming things are rigged correctly.


Drones are being utilized in a variety of missions.

That is why my philosophy in teaching rescue over many years is to help rescuers learn as many ways to do things as possible. I still call it the “tools in the toolbox” principle. Simply stated, the more ways a rescuer has to effect a safe rescue, the more effective that rescuer will be when faced with limited resources, manpower or due to scene conditions.

For example, rescue extrication has many hydraulic, pneumatic, electric and heating devices that make our lives so much easier when bending or moving metal. I think every rescuer will attest to that. But how many times — and be honest about this — have you had to rely on hand tools to do an extrication when either the power equipment wasn’t available, broke during the evolution or could not reach the rescue site? And how about agricultural machinery disentanglement, or industrial disentanglement, where power tools are unable to reach a certain part to cut it or bend it, or are not powerful enough to lift or move the particular components? The last time I checked, the right hand tools for the job were a requirement to getting the job done.

The same can be said for all of the helpful electronic navigation devices available to today’s rescuers, especially in search and rescue. They are wonderful — but they are manmade electronic devices, which can and do fail, or the systems upon which they depend sometimes are out of service, unreachable — or fail. I use moving navigational map GPS in my helicopter. It is wonderful to have, easy to use and is accurate. But I can also assure you that a paper navigational chart flies with me, and I know how to use it. Again, the last time I checked on all this, a paper topo map or nav aid chart in the hands of a skilled rescuer who knows how to read and interpret it — doesn’t fail. All I am saying is this: the more ways you have to either get a job done or have as a reliable backup, the better prepared you will be.

This being said, there are now unmanned flying machines, called drones that can make the rescuers’ lives much simpler and far more effective.

Drones have been around for years, but until recently have been unaffordable to the average fire department or rescue squad — until now. This military technology has made its way into “civilian service” and even into the private sector. It is a given that drone technology is here to stay. Newer, lighter materials and components will be developed that will allow for small drones to carry more payloads for longer distances and a variety of mission capabilities better than that are available right now.

Besides the military and law enforcement uses, drones are increasingly being used in geological research, agricultural management, scientific research of many types, forest fire operations, snow surveys and climatic research and monitoring — and now in search and rescue.

Why is this? Several of the most basic reasons are the relative cost of the machines, direct operational costs, safety and increasing reliability, and ability to be used in harsh or dangerous conditions. While training to properly operate a drone safely is paramount, it amounts to far less than what it takes to pilot a helicopter. Let’s look at these aspects in more detail.

High quality drones can be found in the $2000 to $6000 range that will fulfill many rescue missions. Others in the $400 to $1500 range can help in SAR, but generally do not have sufficient endurance time for extended operations. Examples are searching for lost persons in highly rugged or remote terrain, hazmat situations where aerial surveillance can help the IC make better decisions, surveying flood damages for ingress/egress to areas or searching for stranded victims. Obviously, more expensive “higher end” drones can be purchased with exceptional live-feed video capabilities and additional thermal and/or night vision capabilities, satellite uplinks and farther operational ranges from the drone operator. It all depends upon what you need from a drone and what your requirements are. A computer search for drones can provide you with a vast array of information to assist you in purchase and use of drone technology.

Bell helicopter landing in small remote LZ.

Safety and reliability likewise are great considerations in drone use. Besides being far less in cost than even small helicopters — actually not even in the same ballpark — drones have no live pilot or aircrew. This is great if a drone is crashed, as no aircrew are injured or killed. Possibly someone on the ground could get hurt or killed, but this is even less likely since the drones are small, don’t weigh very much, and don’t carry substantial fuel loads. Many drones even operate on battery cells. As far as reliability, they can be flown in relatively rough weather, but they still must usually be operated in “VFR” (visual flight conditions) where the operator can “see” what is around and below the drone. Drones can still succumb to a condition called CFIT, which means controlled flight into terrain, commonly known as a crash. Drones are mechanically far less complex than full sized helicopters, therefore less likely to suffer from a loss of thrust — engine failure — or component failure — drive train system.

Drones are quite maneuverable. They can hover in place for long periods of time, assuming meteorological conditions allow for this at the time of use. As a platform, they are stable, again depending upon weather conditions at the time of use. Many drones have technology built into them to “auto correct” to remain on a predetermined GPS course despite weather conditions. Camera systems are quite variable as well, from video captured on a video card for viewing later, to “live eye” flight as seen on a PC or in flight goggles worn by the operator. These give a real-time live pilot’s view from the drone.

Drones have limitations. Air speed is relatively slow compared to a helicopter and operational distance from the operator greatly varies by drone and control module capability and terrain. Drones have FAA requirements, such as they currently cannot be flown within five miles of an airport and must be flown at or below certain altitudes, and within safety parameters established by the FAA for operations over people and congested areas. The FAA website can provide you with the current rules applicable to drones.

Drones can carry very high-resolution video and camera systems, but they cannot provide the human perspective of interpretation that only humans can do. Having been around helicopters for 20 years and a pilot for the last six years and having flown SAR flights, I can attest to the human interpretations of an aerial SAR scene. Pilots can see and determine ground movements from an aerial perspective. Pilots can alter flight regimes as needed to determine existing SAR situations and can avoid conditions dangerous to flight by the feel of the helicopter and careful flight planning. Helicopters can remain on scene in the air far longer than most drones, and can carry medical and rescue supplies on board should a suitable landing site be found near a victim.

Pilots can communicate verbally with the IC about a situation and can provide ingress routes to ground rescuers and warn of ground hazards. Helicopters can drop rescue or medical supplies to victims if a suitable landing area is unavailable nearby.

Helicopter pilots can provide real-time interpretive analyses of changing scene conditions.

As you can see, BOTH types of aircraft, drones and helicopters, have their respective places in search and rescue. Drones will never completely replace helicopters, but then helicopters cannot even remotely operate as inexpensively as drones. They were never meant to. Drones are inexpensive compared to helicopters, but cannot perform the variety of tasks that helicopters can. Drone camera systems can record high resolution video or imagery around a scene, but a helicopter pilot can interpret what is seen on the ground during a SAR event.

The human eye can see things that a camera cannot. A drone can be initially utilized to “get a handle” on the rescue scenario, whereby use of a helicopter may then be more accurately determined — and the list of differences and similarities goes on and on.

The purpose of this article is to inform readers that drones and their capabilities have a place in SAR. Many times in my previous articles I have said that all decisions in rescue involve trade-offs. There will always be trade-offs. Something that must never be forgotten in SAR is the benefit-risk analysis. What actions will need to be undertaken to benefit the victim’s rescue while preserving as much safety and reduced risk to the rescuers? If a drone can be utilized to reduce rescuer risk and time on scene to perform rescues, then drones should be looked into as a viable “tool in the toolbox.” Use of drones in rescue is only now beginning to emerge, and over time, will claim their rightful place in the overall science and art of rescue.

Bob Twomey is the founder and past chief of the North Carolina High Level Extraction Rescue Team, Inc. a volunteer helicopter search and rescue support team based in Transylvania County, North Carolina. He is the senior helicopter pilot for Wolf Tree Aviation, LLC operating out of Transylvania Community Airport. He has served in numerous officer and training positions in the Transylvania County Rescue Squad. He has been active in SAR for 41 years. He can be reached at 828-884-7174 or

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