Using UAV’s for search and rescue is slowly but surely gaining popularity. An ability to fly at low levels, high zoom capabilities and excellent night vision (read thermal) capabilities means that a UAV can quickly and efficiently scan an area, detect and reach out to folks in need of help.
It is easier and quicker to deploy a drone compared to a helicopter. For instance, it might not be possible for a helicopter to take off and land in a forest or in a flooded area. Another advantage of using a UAV compared to a helicopter is an ability to fly at low levels. Moreover, affordable costs and an ability to conduct stealthy operations are some other factors that renders drones as a practical solution for search and rescue operations.
The compact size of UAV’s means that you can fly through narrow passages and access hard to reach areas. So, for instance, using a UAV, it is possible to check out the interior of a building in order to detect victims.
For search and rescue, you need a drone with good wind handling capabilities, excellent payload and good flight time. The Inspire is a natural choice. Flying a drone with a dual set up is particularly important – this lets you gather more information. So, you need both EO and thermal capabilities. For an EO camera, you should use a camera with high zoom capabilities.
It is important to choose the right thermal camera for search and rescue. Remember – all objects radiates temperature and a measurable amount of heat. You need a thermal camera that is capable of picking up temperature differences to a high level of accuracy.
Just like DJI is ruling the drones business, FLIR is the de-facto choice when it comes to thermal cameras. 90% of cameras that FLIR makes have a resolution that falls between 336 pixels and 640 pixels.
The DJI Zenmuse XT – R is a great thermal camera and ideal for search and rescue. XT-R stands for XT radiometric. A radiometrically calibrated camera means that you can make temperature measurements from every single pixel on the screen. This lets you get really precise measurements. The FLIR Tau is another option for those who wish to record thermographic data that is radiometrically calibrated.
The different temperature variations that a camera “sees” are displayed in the form of a color palette. In order to decipher a color palette, remember – White is hot and blue is not. So the hottest section is depicted in white while the coolest section is represented in blue. You have different palettes to choose from. Apart from “White hot”, you also have options such as “Black hot”, “Green hot” and “Red hot”. Pick the option that is easiest on your eyes. The “Ice Fire” palette is particularly suited for search and rescue because the hottest areas pop out in red on the screen.
PRO TIP #1 – When your drone is up in the air, rolling the dial that changes exposure will change the palette. Deep pressing the exposure dial will turn on digital zoom
PRO TIP #2 – An object (like a piece of metal) can reflect more heat than its actual body temperature. So, if you go out on a hot afternoon when the temperature is touching 100 degrees, you might not be able to record much variance through a Thermal camera.
For a long time, FAA was striking down people who wanted to do search and rescue. However, things have taken a turn for the better.
Firefighters, local police or public organizations need a COA (Certificate of Authorization) to fly. As a public organization, you do not need a pilot’s license to fly under a COA. Today, the average time to issue a COA is less than 60 days. Even if a department does not have a COA, the FSDO guys are known to make an exception if someone’s life is at stake. It is however, always better to get the necessary authorization beforehand and hence, stay in the good books of the FAA.
It is heartening to note that the FAA can expedite the issuance of waivers and authorization for emergency operations through its Special Government Interest Process (SGI). Using SGI process, the FAA may provide permission for BVLOS and night operations. You can check out information regarding the SGI process here.
Unfortunately, in spite of its many advantages there are lot of departments which are not using drones for search and rescue and other safety operations. This hesitation can be attributed to negative perception of drone technology. Educating folks regarding the various benefits of drone technology and hence, creating awareness will go a long way in scaling up drone operations in public safety.
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