Drones join search and rescue operations in Maine

maine by drone
CC BY-SA 2.0 Eric Kilby

One of the most repeated reasons for developing and supporting drones and autonomous robots is that these nimble machines could be a great help in search and rescue operations. When natural or manmade disasters occur, or even simple accidents, remotely-controlled technologies can go into areas and search for survivors where people cannot.

Maine's Down East Emergency Medical Institute is the first civilian organization to get FAA approval for using drones in those types of scenarios. In Maine, coastal storms can pack a punch and leave people stranded, but the state also sees a fair amount of hikers who lose their way in the wilderness.

Two drones will soon be deployed to help people in those situations. One of the drones is a fixed-wing VK-Ranger EX-SAR, which is on the lower price end at $6,000. It features a wingspan of about 70 inches. The other is a larger multi-rotor VVK-FF-X4K, which is a more expensive $20,000 - $25,000 machine. The latter has a range of about 6 miles, equal to about 45 minutes of flying time. The drones will feature bright paint markings of red, white and yellow and feature strobe lights to increase visibility.

Trotaparamos/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Both of the drones will only be flown by licensed pilots -- one person to navigate the device and another to pan and zoom the camera, looking for stranded people. The drones will be flown using a program that operators can run on a laptop, iPad or smartphone. With some drones, any footage taken by onboard cameras has to be uploaded once the drone returns, but Maine rescuers will have a live stream of the imagery so that the information can be analyzed as quickly as possible.

When on a mission, the drones will fly at 200 feet or lower so that they can communicate with lost or injured people. The drones are also capable of making deliveries of needed items like water, medicine, blankets, radios or food, as long as it weighs 12 pounds or less.

The drones will be able to carry out search and rescue missions in hazardous weather where human-led missions would be put on hold until better conditions, which could mean the difference between life and death for a stranded hiker.

Tags: Maine | Natural Disasters | Technology

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