Thursday, January 20

Flying to the rescue: Scottish mountain teams turn to drones | Scotland

Scottish mountain rescue teams have started using sophisticated drones to search for injured and missing climbers in often dangerous and isolated terrain in the Highlands.

The drones, which weigh just under a kilo, can be outfitted with flashlights, heat-detecting cameras, loudspeakers and even radio phones, allowing rescuers to search for inaccessible ravines and remote areas faster and safer than before.

The technology has been rapidly adopted by Scotland’s 28 volunteer rescue teams over the past year, aiding in recent searches for victims and missing persons in Ben Nevis, the southern highlands, in Fife and the Trossachs.

Drone experts believe the devices could soon act as emergency cell phone antennas, providing coverage in mountains, moorlands and remote shores, allowing rescue teams to detect signs of missing walkers or connect rescuers in areas. mobile dead.

“Drones are definitely an asset, there’s no question about it,” said John Stevenson, leader of the Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team at Fort William, which covers Ben Nevis and now operates four drones. “We are placing drones in places where years ago we might have thought twice about placing people.”

Jim Cooper launches a DGI Mavic drone
Jim Cooper launching a DGI Mavic drone. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod / The Guardian

Tom Nash, founder of the Scottish Search and Rescue Air Association (Saraa), a charity that trains drone pilots, said the technology has the potential to transform rescues and search operations. In 2020, the 24 teams that were members of Scottish Mountain Rescue had 671 calls.

“Risk reduction is a key use of a drone. Previously, when someone needed to do a rope rescue or lift a stretcher, there was a poor person hanging off the edge of a cliff, with a rope back, looking over and saying ‘I think we should leave the rope here,’ ”Nash said. . .

Drone close-up
Drone close-up. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod / The Guardian

“Okay now, just put the drone 20 yards from the other side of the cliff and look behind you, you can see where the victim is. And our rope experts can say ‘our safest rope line is here up to here’. You can light that up at night. We can put on a loudspeaker and if we know it’s going to be a while, we can talk to the victim and tell him that help is on the way, ‘give us a thumbs up if he’s okay but can’t move.’ That’s a really critical use. “

Nash, a former RAF Tornado navigator turned commercial drone operator, helped train 15 volunteers with eight rescue teams across Scotland to become qualified drone pilots. Saraa has six operational drones of her own and in 2020 she had four call requests for drone support; in 2021 that jumped to 15. Separately, rescue teams like Glen Coe and Lochaber have their own team.

Nash and Stevenson said there were limitations: Drones cannot be used in rain, snow, or fog. There are legal height restrictions and they are currently limited to line of sight, which means that a pilot must be able to see the craft.

Mike Smith reviews the images of the drones at the base
Mike Smith reviews the images of the drones at the base. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod / The Guardian

Rescuers also currently keep their drones on the ground if it is a search and rescue helicopter. But Lochaber has learned that they can be programmed to conduct systematic searches of a hillside much faster than a search team on foot, allowing rescue coordinators to study the images at the base.

“Are fabulous. You can get a bird’s eye view of where you are, ”Stevenson said. His team had seen them used by French rescue teams operating down alpine ski slopes.

Nash said their roles could expand as pilot skills and technology improve. Nash said they could copy the communications company OpenReach, which uses drones equipped with 4G phone equipment to “cover” mobile coverage over a large area when the phone masts are down. Over time, drones could deliver supplies and equipment to victims or rescue teams in difficult terrain.

“It is very exciting because it can and will revolutionize things,” he said.

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