Rescue agencies gathered in Bykle Setesdal in freezing winter snow as a drone was used for the first time in an extensive search and rescue avalanche exercise in Norway.
With cold winds pounding at 20 metres per second, producing a wind chill of -15 degrees Celsius in three metres of snow, the exercise was a major undertaking. The police, fire department, International Red Cross, army and air force all played their part as they would if it were for real.
More than 250 people took part in the avalanche exercise 15 kilometres from the nearest road using the Aerialtronics Zenith Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) equipped with an Aerialtronics Dupla Vista, dual-sensor camera.
“Sometimes, the weather is so bad that we cannot use helicopters,” said Ingrid Tronnes Maehre, deputy chief of police in Bykle Setesdal. “We wanted to test whether it is possible to use a drone instead. We found out what benefit we can get using drones in a rescue scenario and whether drones can help us locate missing or injured people faster,” she said. The news was positive.
According to Maehre, using a drone in a search and rescue operation has not been tested before. “I tried to find reports of the use of drones during rescue operations, both nationally and internationally. I could not find any, but the drones performed well.”
When you encounter a real avalanche, you want to have practised enough to save the 20 teenagers caught in the snow while skiing. If you rely only on luck, the mountain will win every time.
The Altura Zenith needed to provide aerial overwatch with optical and thermal cameras and transmit these images to on-site leaders, base camp and the police command using mobile networks.
Drone pilot Yannic van Moerkerk mastered the winds and poor visibility, flying back-to-back sorties. In fact, the drone flew itself. A lot of power and precise GPS saw to that. The camera never failed. The pilot could switch between optical and thermal view, an easy victory for the dual-sensor camera.
The video transmission could be viewed anywhere on earth within five seconds of capturing it using 4G, 3G and even EDGE. When switched to satellite communications, everything was received in an intuitive web interface, allowing people to watch simultaneously.
However, if the authorities are to gain from using drones, they must start viewing them like police dogs that are handpicked, paired with the best officer and trained every day for two years. The lack of training creates a vacuum where the drone operator is not part of the fabric of law enforcement.