The benefits and limits of drones in search and rescue

A albris drone flying over a building during the simulation. Photo: Drone Adventures

During search and rescue operations, time is critical. Injured survivors of a disaster might be trapped, and finding them quickly can literally be a question of life and death. For search and rescue teams that often means having to make difficult decisions, such as where to look first and what risks to accept for themselves while responding to an emergency.

During an international three-day emergency response simulation in France, the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD), CartONG and Drone Adventures flew drones to see where UAVs could add value in search and rescue operations. In total, 316 emergency responders from five countries took part in the exercise.

Three drone models were tested during the exercise: a Sensefly eBee, a Sensefly albris and an MD4-200 microdrone.

Each of the drones had a standard RGB high-definition (HD) camera, some were also equipped with thermal cameras.


Map first

Ahead of the deployment, the drone teams had produced high resolution maps of the simulation area. According to the participants, these maps provided a significant added value since it helped the teams understand the response context much better. Sadly, the teams also felt that it was unrealistic to expect that high resolution maps could be produced spontaneously in an emergency. This means that they would have to be produced as part of disaster preparedness or risk reduction activities, which is only likely for recurring disasters or slowly evolving crises, but not in the many emergencies that hit unexpectedly and to which SAR has to respond.

A map of one of the sites that were used in the simulation. The map was produced ahead of the simulation.
A map of one of the sites that were used in the simulation. The map was produced ahead of the simulation.

First look

One team noted that the drones’ live feed was very useful to do a basic assessment of a damaged or destroyed building before sending people or dogs into the structure. In this way, the drone imagery could help reduce risks to the emergency responders.


Thermal cameras

Using the thermal camera to find survivors proved difficult since the camera could not always tell a warm surface from a human body. Participants also found that using thermal imagery became much more difficult over the course of a day as the environment’s temperature rose, making it harder to tell a body from the surroundings. In one case, a rescue team was able to confirm that a hot spot was indeed a survivor, but they also found two other people in the same location who had not been visible in the thermal image. However, it is not clear whether this was a result of the type of thermal camera used. The one that was available during the simulation is normally used for building inspections; more specialised cameras might have provided better results.

The albris’ infrared sensor shows the location of survivors.
The albris’ infrared sensor shows the location of survivors.

Integrated rather than external

The teams also emphasized that for drones to be effective, drone pilots would need to be part of the team. SAR is a highly specialised activity that follows very specific procedures and teams often use very technical language when coordinating during an emergency. The participants of the simulation felt strongly that external, third party providers of drone flights would not be able to integrated seamlessly with the rest of the team, which is essential for drone operators to be able to be add value. One of the few examples worldwide, where drones are already a fixed part of a rapid response team, is the Manchester Fire Department.


Nice to have for SAR

All in all most of the SAR teams agreed that a drone would be a welcome addition to their existing toolkits, but that they could not replace existing tools or trained animals.

Over the next months, Droneblog will feature summaries of case studies that show how drones are already being used in disaster response operations worldwide. The case studies were produced under the leadership of the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD) and with funding from EU Humanitarian Aid. The goal of this research initiative is to identify use cases in which cases drones can improve the quality or increase the efficiency of humanitarian aid.


You can find a more comprehensive version of this and other case studies on