Up in the Air

Issue 1 and Volume 12.

Drone technology is at the forefront of the progress being made to provide safer and more effective ways to conduct search and rescue missions after large-scale disasters. Innovations around the world have made drone-assisted response and recovery a less dangerous and more cost-efficient option while increasing the effectiveness of these recovery missions.


Drones offer several advantages over traditional manned search and rescue methods. Dr. Brent Terwilliger of the Worldwide College of Aeronautics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida indicates that drones offer portability because of their small size, which allows them to be put into flight and to land at the disaster site itself. This offers an advantage over planes and helicopters that need specialized areas nearby from which to take off and land. This provides a significant, time-saving advantage that can be critical in emergency response situations.

The chairperson for the master of science in Unmanned Systems program at Orlando Aeronautical University also specifies the safety advantages: “Since the pilot is removed from the aircraft, it can be placed in closer proximity to dangerous environments and enable access to hard to reach locations.” Many drones also have significantly longer flight times than manned aircrafts, which need to be refueled more frequently. Drones with fixed-wing platforms are known for their ability for long uninterrupted flights, which allows rescuers to keep the drones airborne longer, reducing downtime and increasing chances of spotting and rescuing those affected by the disaster. As a result, mission commanders can divert these saved resources to more critical areas.

Because of these advantages, rescue agencies all over the country are already using drones to help with their efforts. Many police and fire departments have also started drone programs and are cooperating with researchers and aeronautical experts to help them design protocols for using drones in the field. In the recent Texas floods, for example, a drone was used to spot two people who were stranded, identifying the areas that rescuers needed to reach to save the individuals. The drone was also used to deliver safety resources to another group of people who were then able to save themselves.


Worldwide, innovations are being made that increase the efficiency of drones in these emergency response situations. At the recent Fifth International Conference on Smart Cities, Systems, Devices, and Technologies in Spain, researchers from Germany presented a three-dimensional mapping system that uses drones to capture and transmit extremely accurate renderings of the area affected by a disaster. Michael Spranger and his team hope to create a system that will help make responses to large disasters, such as hurricanes, airplane crashes, terrorist attacks, and earthquakes, safer and more effective.

Their framework uses open source software to process images obtained by their drone into three-dimensional maps of an area. The use of a drone and open source software, instead of manned vehicles and proprietary software for mapping, offers a large cost advantage. Current methods being used in the field are large-scale imaging using helicopters and drones as well as videotaping and laser scanning. These laser scanning systems are on the leading edge of accuracy and speed but can be expensive, requiring a large budget to purchase and operate. The software that processes the images scanned by lasers is also costly.

According to Terwilliger, “Currently, higher fidelity models require substantial time to capture, process, and render-it can take days.” A team of German scientists hope to change that. They tested their system on the disaster site of the crashed Germanwings Flight 4U9525 and found their method could map an area relatively quickly. The process works by flying a drone in a circle around the area in question, keeping the camera focused on the center of the circle while taking numerous pictures. In their experiment, they mapped the same area taking different numbers of pictures. With a smaller number of images, the software processed the images more quickly, displaying the map sooner. They found that a map created with 28 pictures took about 20 minutes to process, while a map created with 111 images took about one and a half to two hours. They discovered that there were only minor differences between the two maps.

With the dual benefits of time and cost savings, the use of this method can reduce the human and environmental costs of disasters significantly. Instead of deploying a helicopter that needs to fly from an airfield that is often far away from the disaster site, the drones can be deployed from the site of the disaster, and the images can be processed immediately.

Terwilliger agrees with the usefulness of three-dimensional modeling, saying, “Capturing three-dimensional data helps gain a clearer picture of the environment and its unique terrain and features, which can affect how response resources are applied.” He provides the following example: “If a fire is moving through a forest, responders need to know the relative position, size, and shape of the underlying geographic features, such as ridges, bodies of water, and roadways.” The data can also be used in post-response assessment to evaluate how effective the response was and how it could be improved in the future.


There are some challenges, however, that rescue agencies face when using drones. First, to safely share airspace with other drones and manned aircraft, the technology used in unmanned drones needs to be improved and standardized. Terwilliger explains, “There are challenges with ‘sense and avoidance’ (or detect and avoid) among other aircraft operating in the scene that must be addressed.”

As the volume of commercial and private drone usage increases, this problem will only intensify. According to Terwilliger, “Recreational use, especially around emergency scenes, has also presented challenges, as they can result in safety issues when operated inappropriately and outside of current permitted legal use around such scenes.”

This difficulty in creating regulation that allows many vehicles to share airspace explains why many agencies are hampered by legislation. The authorities, including the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), are scampering to write laws governing the use of drones in public airspace. While the FAA does not prohibit personal drone use if it meets some basic regulations like altitude limits, many local governments forbid personal drone usage.

Terwilliger offers insight into the hurdles that rescue agencies face with the use of drones, stating, “The major challenges to employing UAS [unmanned aircraft system] in disaster or emergency response include deconflicting and coordinating use with other assets in the area, including manned aircraft, and gaining regulatory approval to use UAS in a specific location.”

Commercially, all drone usage needs to be approved by the FAA first, and only those with valid pilot licenses can fly the drones. With regard to regulation, many countries in Europe are far ahead of the United States, with set guidelines and laws already in place for drone usage. The FAA is working to improve the speed with which it grants approval for nonprofit agencies to use drones. It recently approved drone usage for a search and rescue company in Maine and has promised to work harder at expediting approval for other such requests.

Legislation is one of the hurdles Terwilliger lists when asked about the obstacles preventing widespread usage of drone technology. He says, “The need for standardization in operations, controls, and operational procedures; federal, state, and local regulations; public outreach and education; and availability of technology supporting sense and avoidance are some of the most pressing challenges.”

In addition to this, Terwilliger also specifies some operational difficulties with the current state of drone usage in search and rescue. Operators for the drones need to be properly trained for each type of operation and for each type of unmanned vehicle that will be used. This requires an investment of time and money, which can be a burden to some agencies that are not well-funded. Drones also need to be chosen carefully to ensure they have the capability to handle the demands of the operation. This means that their range, endurance, speed, and payload capacity need to be sufficient for the operation in which they will be used.

Some drones are specifically tailored to particular environmental factors; therefore, using drones unsuitable for high winds or low visibility situations will hamper rescue efforts. Investing in different drones to fit each emergency situation can become expensive. The versatility of drones needs to be improved to make drone programs more feasible for widespread use in search and rescue departments.

A Place for Manned and Unmanned Responses

There is a place for both manned and unmanned response in emergency situations. Operation commanders need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of all available resources before deploying them strategically. To efficiently use unmanned drones in combination with manned response teams is the ultimate goal. As Terwilliger points out, “One of the critical aspects to acknowledge is that the use of UAS must augment or support a responder’s abilities, without causing distraction or reduction of their current capability.”

Despite the need to weigh the advantages against the disadvantages, with the rapid rate of innovations in drone usage and government agencies working to expedite laws, drones will soon become a vital part of the search and rescue team toolbox.