Using UAVs And Helicopter Together

I have written past CFREJ articles about the respective roles and uses of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV drones) and helicopters in search and rescue. Both are extremely useful tools in the search and rescue field, and, under the right conditions and training, can be used very successfully together.

Over the past couple months, here in my home county, I have flown searches where a UAV was on the same scene. One search was actually near our local airport where I was searching the river and nearby bottomland fields. How did we make it work? Very easily!


Victim located on a rock ledge by helicoper.

The drone pilot had an aviation radio with the local airport frequency “dialed in” so he could monitor any local aircraft traffic. Likewise, I had a search command staff member meet me at the airport prior to liftoff so I could provide them with an aviation radio. That way I could easily communicate with command after I became airborne. All of us remaining on the local airport frequency allowed all of us to monitor any inbound or outbound aircraft traffic and allowed any other aircraft in the vicinity to know where we were at any given time relative to the airport. Plus, with the airport manager knowing exactly what the search plan and search area was ahead of time, allowed him to communicate this to any other aircraft in the immediate area. Safety was the highest priority. With the drome pilot and me knowing what the part 107 rules and regulations are for UAVs in the Federal Aviation Regulations, we easily work in the same air space simultaneously. 

As I was lifting off, I notified central dispatch and command so they would know I was airborne. I next notified the UAV pilot of liftoff and where I was beginning my search flight, and at what altitude. It all worked out great. Everyone involved was on the same page, so to say.

Light helicopter ideal for search operations.

In past articles, I have talked in length about the benefits of both UAVs and helicopters. Both are extremely useful; both have benefits and limitations.

Helicopters can search bigger areas quickly without the limitations placed on UAVs. As such, the helicopter pilot or spotter is able to locate their target in minimal time, thereby reducing the time spent in search mode. However, there are times when the victim is located in such an area, that surrounding trees, rocks or other obstructions do not allow for the pilot to get the helicopter closer to the victim. Most helicopter pilots will not place their helicopter in a situation where they are operating in extremely tight confines with few, or no, options should mechanical issues arise or main rotor/tail rotor airflow is compromised. These things can lead to an exceedingly bad day. THIS is where the UAV has great advantages.

An UAV can easily get into tight places safely inaccessible to the helicopter. The helicopter pilot can relay valuable information to the UAV pilot, such as coordinates and best ingress routes to the victim(s), hazards surrounding the rescue site, ground team ingress, and so forth. The helicopter pilot, from a higher safe altitude, can monitor the “big picture” of the rescue as it evolves, relaying information to command. 

The quarry photos show a search in an old rock quarry for a fall victim. As you can see, the quarry is dug out into the side of a mountain. The floor of the quarry is surrounded by rock cliffs and trees on three sides. Once the victim is located, to fly a helicopter into such an area, with few options should something go wrong, is extremely dangerous. This is not to say it can’t be done, but that it severely limits the pilot’s flight response options if something does go wrong. But the UAV can be directed into this quarry, and with the camera capability onboard the UAV can better assess the victim and surroundings for the ground teams.

Typical rescue quality drone with high resolution camera and infra-red capabilities.

DuPont quarry search.

In this photo showing an injured rock climber on a rock ledge, this was as close and low as I dared to get by helicopter, given the rugged terrain and variable air currents against the rock face. However, I could pinpoint the victim location by latitude and longitude coordinates, relay these to the UAV pilot, who could then fly right up to the victim for scene assessment. The UAV could even land on this small ledge to deliver water, a cell phone or radio, or whatever else would be helpful in this situation. I can fly above the site, relaying ingress information to command and/or ground teams. Can utilization of separate but distinct aviation resources get any better than this?

Once a rescue operation begins, it is possible, in certain meteorological conditions, that a helicopter crew can lower needed supplies to the ground team in such a remote site. If not, perhaps a landing in a safe site near the rescue operation is possible. The scenarios where aviation resources can be beneficial are almost limitless. But as I have stated in the past, this requires training and very careful coordination. Local pilots may or may not be willing to assist you, within their capabilities and the capabilities of their helicopter, but you won’t know until you ask. The worst any of them can say is no, and what have you lost? You tried, and now you know.

If you get a pilot willing to assist you, you should at least bring them onto your departmental roster as a member, so that they can receive the benefits that are available to you, especially benefits through the North Carolina Association or Rescue and EMS. Next, to have a helicopter pilot onboard is not enough. You must train with them, so that the pilot can see what you deal with in rescues, and, so that you know what the pilot and his or her aircraft is capable of. I can assure you: not all helicopters are created equal. ALL have limitations of some sort, just like your rescue vehicles have limitations.

Helicopters, UAVs and rescuers can all work together. It just takes determination and continuous training … and a little old-fashioned “thinking outside the box.”

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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