Critical Connectivity for Next-Generation Unmanned Search and Rescue Operations

By Ben Gross | September 12, 2022

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When people go missing, either on land or at sea, time is often of the essence. Extremes of temperature and weather, unforgiving terrain, dangerous wildlife, and hunger and thirst are all major factors that can shorten the odds of survival. Sending in SAR (search and rescue) personnel, either on foot or in vehicles or vessels, not only takes up a lot of precious time but also exposes rescuers to some of these same factors, potentially complicating the operation further.

With the advent of accessible commercial drone technology, public safety agencies and privately-operated SAR teams around the world have now gained an essential tool that provides a number of advantages over more traditional search and rescue methods.

UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) can cover a wide area in a fraction of the time that a ground- or boat-based search team would take, and provide a crucial eye-in-the-sky capability that delivers superior situational awareness. Operators can work at a distance without needing to expose themselves to risks and hazards or figuring out how to navigate dangerous terrain. This is especially important in situations such as earthquakes, avalanches or hurricanes, which may have created the inhospitable terrain in the first place.

Drones are also cheaper and more convenient to deploy than manned aircraft or helicopters. With a low logistical footprint, they can be easily transported right to the edge of the zone of operations, and most models require only one or two operators. Their smaller size also allows them to fly where other aircraft cannot reach, such as urban areas, close to tree canopies, or even into caves.

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Critical UAV payloads for search and rescue

SAR drones can be equipped with a wide range of sensors and payloads that are designed to massively increase the odds of finding missing persons, or to improve safety and well-being until personnel on the ground can mount a rescue.

Foremost among these are visual cameras and thermal imaging sensors. These can provide real-time situational awareness and surveillance to search teams back at the control station. High-definition imagery and video can be used to locate people during the day, while infrared sensors detect body heat, allowing people to stand out among vegetation and other surroundings at night.

Imaging payloads can also be used to create high-accuracy maps and models of the search area. This may be particularly important in regions where detailed maps are not already available, or where a natural disaster has significantly affected the character of the landscape.

Some models of SAR drone can be configured to carry or drop a variety of crucial items that may aid victims in a variety of ways. These include food and water, medical supplies, liferafts, radios, and tracking beacons. The drones may also include searchlights and one-or two-way audio communications capabilities.

Autonomy, AI and BVLOS: the future of SAR?

Currently, most SAR drones are operated manually by a human pilot, and images and video feeds are also observed manually for any signs of missing persons. Autonomous technology could potentially help improve the efficiency of SAR operations, reducing the amount of manpower required to conduct missions.

AI-powered computer vision could be used to analyze sensor outputs in order to detect humans or their possible presence in an area. Such technology would be able to scan images and video much faster than humans, and limit errors or missed targets caused by factors such as operator fatigue.

A further factor that would improve SAR effectiveness is the shift to BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) operations. Currently, in most jurisdictions around the world, civilian drone operations must be conducted within the pilot’s line of sight, which puts a practical limit on their range to around a kilometer or so. In the future, when regulatory frameworks for BVLOS flights have been solidified, search and rescue operations with drones could be conducted at greater distances, allowing for faster response times as well as coverage of greater areas.

Cellular communications for SAR missions

The game-changing technologies of autonomy, AI and BVLOS will all require one essential component: a reliable communications link between the drone and its control station. Even with full autonomy, SAR teams still need real-time information that provides them with an up-to-the minute picture of the progress of the mission, allowing them to reach missing persons as soon as possible after detection.
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While traditional RF datalinks may be suitable for a wide variety of SAR operations, there are certain conditions under which they may encounter difficulties. They are limited to radio line-of-sight, which can make them less suited for longer distances. They may also struggle to provide reliable connectivity for SAR missions in built-up environments such as urban areas, or where there is a lot of clutter such as in the aftermath of an earthquake.

SATCOM (satellite communications) solutions may solve these issues. However, many search and rescue teams, particularly those operated by public agencies, are typically under tight budget constraints, and SATCOM systems and subscription services can constitute a significant expense.

Cellular connectivity can help fill in the gaps, allowing drones to operate at essentially unlimited distances away from their operators as long as cellular towers are within range. 5G in particular has the potential to provide more than sufficient bandwidth and response times for the necessary data transfer from imaging and video sensors.

Enabling reliable connectivity for SAR

Elsight’s Halo platform is an ideal solution for SAR drones, delivering robust cellular connectivity that suits the needs of both current and future operations. Halo’s built-in cellular bonding technology allows up to four unique connections to be aggregated into one secure datalink, providing the utmost in reliability for safe operations and rapid response, and ensuring that bandwidth is optimized for the needs of the mission.

For early adopters looking to develop a future-proof search and rescue platform that can take advantage of BVLOS flight, Elsight also offers the Halo VIP (Value Investment Program). Featuring a SMART Start onboarding process that helps you with everything you need to create a successful proof-of-concept from planning to certification, the VIP also includes flexible purchase agreements on the Halo hardware, allowing you to scale to the level of your operations.
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