Drones put to work in search and rescue efforts.

As drones become more capable and simpler to use,  it only makes sense that they be incorporated in emergency situations like that of search and rescue.

In the mountains of Colorado the Northern Colorado SAR (Search and Rescue) ESS (Emergency Services Support) has stepped up their abilities by adding a drone to their tool kit.

I recently spoke with Matt of NOCO SAR about the organization and its new addition.

Tell us about NOCOSAR and who it serves.

Northern Colorado Search & Rescue / Emergency Service Support was founded in July of 2014 to provide additional manpower and advanced technical assets to emergency service professionals in the Northern Colorado area. While we are in our infancy and our current capabilities and operations are fairly limited, we intend to grow to serve the greater Larimer and Weld County areas.

UAVs can often times be deployed quicker than a maned aircraft and are significantly cheaper to operate.

How long have you been with NOCOSAR and tell us a bit about your background and current role within NOCOSAR?

I have been with the organization since the beginning as one of the founding members. Like many of our founding members I came from a public service background, 6 years as a law enforcement explorer in my youth and as an adult I served 6 years in the U.S. Army. I am currently the operations captain for the organization, although as a new and small organization all of our command staff members have multiple hats. As operations captain I oversee day to day activities, act as a point of contact for the public, coordinate with outside agencies and organizations, and conduct fundraising activities.

We have chosen these three platforms for their strengths in different types of operations.

What kind of UAVs does NOCOSAR use, what does the set-up include (ground station, camera, flight time, etc..) and why did you choose this kind of drone?

Our current UAV is a DJI Inspire 1 with 4k camera. Our UAV operator’s vehicle is equipped with a 20” monitor to be able to view live video from the UAV; flight time is approximately 20 min. This platform is what was available locally as a temporary solution until we can raise the funds to build our custom platforms, one multirotor and one fixed wing. The multirotor will be a quad configuration swinging 18” props and will be equipped with a 3 axis gimbal, zoom camera, and a thermal imaging sensor. From what we have seen from similar configurations we expect to get approximately 20-25 min of flight time. For our fixed wing platform we have partnered with a European company, Raptor UAS. They are currently in the process of doing a kickstarter campaign to set a world record flight time using their platform and Horizon energy’s hydrogen fuel cell. As a result of funds raised in the process of this world record attempt they will be donating a fully built turnkey fixed wing platform to us. This platform will also be equipped with a zoom camera and a thermal imaging sensor as well as a 21 mega pixel still imaging camera. We expect the Raptor UAS platform to have an endurance of 2-4 hours with a conventional electric propulsion system.

We have chosen these three platforms for their strengths in different types of operations. The DJI Inspire 1 has phenomenal image quality. Even once we get our new multirotor platform the DJI will most likely still be our primary platform for daytime aerial imagery for accident reconstruction and documentation as well as short range situational awareness and damage assessments. Our custom built multirotor will excel in short range search and rescue and small fire surveillance due to its onboard thermal imaging sensor and its ability to remain stationary for extended periods of time. Our fixed wing platform will allow us to cover larger areas during search and rescue operations, help with fire surveillance on large wildfires, conduct mapping after disasters for damage assessments, and collect high resolution still imaging for search and rescue operations.

 

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How do drones help NOCOSAR?

UAVs can help us to locate subjects quicker and oftentimes you can see things from above that you could never see from the ground. UAVs can often times be deployed quicker than a maned aircraft and are significantly cheaper to operate. We can also send UAVs into situations and conditions that we would not be willing to or would not be safe to send a manned aircraft into. When using UAVs to document serious traffic accidents it can reduce the amount of time that a roadway must be closed and allow traffic to resume normal flow. All of this equates to getting help faster, increasing safety, and reducing the impact of incidents on the public.

 

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One of the biggest safety measures in place is communication, UAVs do not leave the ground in an emergency situation without the approval of an onsite incident commander, if there are manned aircraft in the vicinity all flights will be coordinated with the incident air boss

 

In a S & R operation what kind of safety measures do you follow when using the drone?

We start with following all applicable FAA laws and regulations, including maintaining line of sight, altitude limits, and having an observer. One of the biggest safety measures in place is communication, UAVs do not leave the ground in an emergency situation without the approval of an onsite incident commander, if there are manned aircraft in the vicinity all flights will be coordinated with the incident air boss as well. Clear standard operating procedures and good training help to insure the safety and effectiveness of operations. Unauthorized flights over any emergency scene without coordination and approval of the appropriate authorities can do much more harm than good.
Part of our UAV program entails developing standard operating procedures, best practices, and training guidelines. Hopefully in the future we can implement a training program that will allow us to bring in outside agencies and organizations interested in starting a UAV program and train them how to safely and effectively run and operate their UAV programs.

 

Did NOCOSAR do any testing with drones prior to including one in it’s operations and if so, what did that entail?

Yes, testing was done to find the limits of range and safe operating capabilities of our current system as well as testing the limitations of the imaging system for seeing certain details in search and rescue operations. Testing is an ongoing process that will continue to take place both with our current system and with our new systems in the future. Testing included moving the system away from the control station under different terrain and environmental conditions to test range. Inducing malfunctions and problems to test the return to home function and other default safety features to ensure they functioned as designed. Imaging testing evolved hiding of objects like backpacks, jackets, and dummies to test at what altitudes they were visible and operators were able to locate them.

 

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How many crew members are trained to fly the drone and do any of them fly personal drones as a hobby when they not working?

Currently two members are trained as operators, both fly recreationally as well.

 

What are your thoughts of how drones are portrayed today?

It is sad to see them demonized and to see the way the general public perceives them. Some of this is misconception and media hysteria, some of it is legitimate concerns based on a small number of recreational operators that use their drones in an unlawful or irresponsible manner. Our organization takes every chance we get to educate the public on what a great asset this technology can be and how it can help save lives as well as how the technology works and how to use it safely and responsibly.

 

Do you see more S&R groups implementing the use of drones into their operations and what are the benefits that your drone had brought to NOCOSAR?

I do see more SAR teams using UAVs in the near future, the ability to help get the job done faster and more effectively directly correlates over to lives and resources saved.

 

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In closing, where do you see drone usage headed in terms of helping with rescue type efforts?

I believe use of UAVs will increase dramatically in the near future, I only hope regulations and public perception can evolve as fast as the demand and technology.

Todd Harper

Todd Harper is an outdoor enthusiast and adventure seeker. His ability to shoot video from the ground or air along with this photography skills are what drives him to bring out the best in himself and his work no matter where he is.

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