In the past 5 years drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have rapidly transitioned from toys to tools. Any job that historically made use of conventional aircraft is exploring the possibilities for these UAVs to make work easier, cheaper, and more effective. Enter a new opportunity: Search and Rescue Drones.
We recently sat down for an interview with our local newspaper, during our conversation the reporter brought up a skier that was lost at our local mountain. We had followed the story as Search and Rescue teams struggled to find a father and husband who hadn’t come home. The reporter asked if our thermal cameras could be used to find a lost person, and of course the answer was yes, our high definition thermal equipment is ideally suited to finding a warm body in a cold environment. After the interview we spent some time at the office discussing how we might be able to help and what the best approach would be to serving the SAR community.
There are several things that make a search and rescue job different from the industrial inspection, mapping, and videography jobs we normally do. In our discussions we came up with three UAV types that should be considered for search and rescue drone operations. We ranked each platform on a set of characteristics that we consider the vital considerations for search and rescue drones.
DJI Inspire 1 & Matrice 100
Duration: 12-25 minutes ★★☆☆☆
Wind handling: 15-25mph (drastic reduction in flight time) ★★★☆☆
Sensor Payload: single thermal camera or daylight camera – Zenmuse XT ★★★☆☆
Ease of use:★★★★★
Portability: too large to be carry on baggage but the smallest option here ★★★☆☆
Range: 2+ miles ★★☆☆☆
Price: 3200$ + sensor packages ★★★☆☆
Volantex Ranger EX | Fixed Wing
Duration: 90-200 minutes ★★★★☆
Wind Handling: 10-15mph (drastic flight time reduction) ★★☆☆☆
Sensor Payload: varies, can include multiple sensors 1.5lb capacity ★★★★☆
Reliability: Hand built 1 off designs, lacks the track record and broad testing of DJI ★★☆☆☆
Ease of use: requires experienced pilot, and runway for takeoff/landing ★☆☆☆☆
Portability: large bulky box, requires assembly on site ★★☆☆☆
Range: 30+ miles ★★★★★
Price: 2500$ + sensor packages. (requires custom assembly)★★★★☆
Bergen Observer Twin | Gas Heli
Duration: 120+ minutes ★★★★★
Wind Handling: 35+ mph (duration less impacted by wind) ★★★★★
Sensor Payload: varies, can include multiple sensors 10lb+ capacity★★★★★
Reliability: hand built by trusted company does require tuning and maintenance ★★★☆☆
Ease of use: requires engine tuning, auto take off and landing possible ★★★☆☆
Portability: very large heavy and bulky. ★☆☆☆☆
Range: 30+ miles ★★★★★
Price: $15,000++ plus sensor packages ★☆☆☆☆
While there is room for debate, and our rankings are fairly arbitrary, the bottom line is there is no perfect solution currently available for search and rescue drones. The portability and simplicity of the DJI system makes it very attractive. Depending on the use, it is probably the best system for SAR, but it is far from ideal. The gas powered heli from Bergen is an incredibly capable beast with many strengths. It’s range and wind handling are top notch as are its abilities to accommodate more sophisticated payloads with multiple cameras and advanced features. The fixed wing option is hard to recommend because of the challenges involved with getting it airborne. With a skilled pilot and a capable builder it has the potential to be very useful with advanced multi-camera payloads and awesome flight characteristics in good conditions. Our recommendation would be to fly what you have. No UAV company is going to make money in a search and rescue role, SAR teams are generally volunteer organizations with limited budgets. The opportunity here is for community service. Drones are a buzz word in the news right now and if we as owner/operators can present positive results in assisting search and rescue teams we are helping to grow and enhance public support and respect for our profession.