Once upon a time, drones were the exclusive preserve of covert military developers, where, if mentioned at all, they were usually referred to as Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). Much later, low-fi versions began to appear on the hobby/enthusiast market, at first tending to excite great interest and public annoyance in equal measure. Fast-forward to the present and we find that the latest generation of these mini unmanned aircraft systems offer major benefits, such as speed, easy access, and economy, which already make them go-to tools in many specialist industries. Now the UK’s emergency services are becoming aware of the inherent potential of UAS deployment, it seems these fixed-wing and multi-rotor machines may soon play a significant role in future emergency management – one major incentive being that saving time generally saves lives too. Drones used by police, fire, and other emergency services are quickly being developed.
Enhanced emergency intelligence and response
For police services, UAS surveillance and reconnaissance is perhaps a natural development of the role already undertaken by police helicopters. So rather than summoning remote aerial assistance, police teams may soon be able to launch and control their own local UAS support for intelligence applications related to crowd control, siege management, monitoring fleeing vehicles, and similar.
Likewise, fire services would surely wish to take advantage of UAS aerial monitoring of larger-scale fires to locate the heart of the blaze, check for survivors or victims, remain in line-of-sight contact with fire-rescue teams, and quickly survey fire damage once a fire had been tackled. In the event of persistent hazardous conditions such as prevail in the aftermath of a gas explosion, or the collapse of a large building, aerial cameras and/or thermal imaging would be a quick and safe means of finding victims without risking further lives, and also establishing the nature and extent of the emergency – and thus the level of response required.
With emergencies involving remote or inhospitable terrain, UAS support would be invaluable for services such as our coastguards or mountain search-and-rescue teams. Again technologies such as remote cameras and thermal imaging would help to rapidly search and pinpoint the location of victims in cliff rescues, those trapped by incoming tides, or rescues at sea where victims may be unconscious or in the water. Similarly, large areas of moorland and other potentially threatening landscapes could be efficiently searched at speed to find outdoor adventurers lost or stranded and in need of assistance.
Ambulance services and other medical-response teams would benefit from UAS capabilities when faced with major disasters where victims are not easily visible, in terrain where access is restricted, or when dealing with air crashes and similar incidents where the victims may well be spread across a wide area.
Emergency services worldwide have also begun to commission or deploy a range of UAS support as outlined below:
– Canadian Police successfully located and rescued an unconscious driver using an infrared camera mounted on a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle);
– Both Germany and Holland have so-called ‘ambulance drones’ capable of rapidly deploying a life-saving defibrillator for those suffering heart attacks in wilderness locations;
– A US-developed UAV is equipped to deliver urgent medical supplies in third-world countries, whilst another UAV development, known as ‘InstantEye’, can ferry a mobile phone to trapped victims thus enabling them to communicate with rescuers.
Future Disaster Management
UAS capability continues to expand at a rapid pace, and new sensory equipment can now assess levels of chemical contamination, recognise the sound of gunfire, and even detect and measure radiation hazards. UAV’s of the future will also become powerful disaster-management tools used, for example, to overfly and map disaster zones to inform decisions about which locations are most in need of support, and also to configure the best routes through the zone which emergency-response vehicles should follow to avoid major obstructions.