Why Drones are the Future of Search and Rescue

Why Drones are the Future of Search and Rescue

September 16, 2016

Why Drones are the Future of Search and Rescue

Drones are flying to the rescue in the emergency response sector, helping police record and analyze crime scenes, and assisting search and rescue teams in identifying victims lost in the wilderness. Not only can a drone collect precise, detailed footage and data from the air, it can also help crews cut down on expenses, keep workers safe, and ultimately speed up efforts in a sector where every second counts.

First response crews can better react and respond to emergency situations with an extra set of eyes in the sky. With the correct equipment, a drone can provide crews with footage that gives them an aerial advantage, without having to spend resources on expensive manned aerial flights. An infrared camera can detect heat signatures to help search and rescue crews quickly identify victims, as well as map out and monitor areas in need of response. A thermal camera can also be attached to a drone to help crews see through thick canopy coverage in the wilderness and as a night vision tool so missions can carry on once the sun sets.

According to Mike Johnson, regional emergency management coordinator for Cumberland County NS, utilizing drones in the emergency response sector is extremely advantageous due to their ability to view hard to areas and keep workers out of harm's way. Not only do drones provide information that can better protect rescue teams, Johnson says they are also a much more cost-effective way to carry out searches versus traditional methods such as manned flights or on-foot scouting. "Helicopters can be several hundred dollars an hour, whereas a drone can be bought outright and used over and over again," he said. "Aerial searches for lost persons can be very costly, drones aid support in search and rescue efforts for a fraction of the cost, risk and resources."


The wilderness can attract many of those who love the outdoors, but that also means that there is a greater chance that something could go wrong. When something does, search and rescue workers face extreme challenges including weather, difficult terrain, and remote locations.

"Drones can give us the ability to assess and plan missions in search areas that could have potential safety issues," said Johnson. "With a drone we can gain the ability to access areas that are covered in canopy, or collect data and put together updated trail locations that don't even exist on Google Earth."

A drone can carry out extensive searches over large plots of land in minutes, in contrast to on-foot searches which can take hours to complete. With the ability to fly at low levels usually limited by a helicopter, a drone can provide crews with a high definition live-video feed that can be replayed in order to increase the chances of finding a victim. A thermal camera can also give crews the ability to search at night, and detect the heat signature of victims through areas of low visibility.

Drones can even be used to drop in medical supplies, food, and water to keep victims in the best possible condition before rescue crews are able to save them. New technology is also being developed to give drones the ability to assess the trajectory of victims lost in the wilderness, better detect and recognize faces, and memorize trails.


Drone technology saw widespread usage throughout many of the most modern natural disasters, including most recently by news organizations using drones to film and report on the Louisiana flooding disaster in the United States . During natural disasters, drones can be used to assess structural damage on buildings, analyze environmental damage, create 3D models, and to spot victims potentially still trapped in a disasters aftermath.

According to Johnson, a big advantage of using drones in natural disaster scenarios is the easy to attain new perspective from above the ground. "Drones give us the ability to see into an area where there is an issue going on and give us a bigger picture view," he said. "The ability to view a larger picture of a situation so crews can shorten the amount of time it takes to assess a situation is invaluable."

Trevor Bergmann, general manager of AeroVision Canada, a Halifax-based company that specializes in commercial asset inspection, says drones are a valuable tool to help search and rescue teams make more informed decisions on how to respond to emergency situations. Just this year, the AeroVision Canada team travelled to the coast of Ecuador after a major earthquake. Working alongside local government authorities, AeroVision used the DJI Inspire 1 Pro to assess structural damage made to buildings as well as look out for victims still potentially trapped in the earthquakes aftermath.

According to Bergmann, the information collected by a drone can be used in numerous ways to improve the efficiency of response crews. "A drone can be used for visual reference and inspection, thermal scanning, and airborne laser scanning to check structural integrity," he said. Ultimately, Bergmann says drones are a tool that can help authorities find quick solutions in the wake of a natural disaster. "You can get data faster, make decisions faster, and ultimately respond faster."

A drone can be deployed to create 3D models to regularly monitor areas prone to natural disasters such as landslides, hurricanes or floods so that emergency response crews can better plan for, and respond to disasters. With real-time thermal imagery a drone can also be sent into a natural disaster event such as a hurricane to collect data for researchers to study in order to better understand their behaviours.

Fire Rescue

Within minutes of arrival, a drone can scan over a fire to help firefighters extinguish flames faster and safer than ever before. Equipped with an HD camera, a drone can capture a live video feed to provide firefighters with a real-time overview of the scope of a fire and whether or not it is spreading. "Not only does a drone give them a different perspective, you can carry out live fire monitoring, thermal hot spot detection, as well as the initial survey of a major structure before they send people in," said Bergmann.

A drone attached with a thermal camera can detect temperatures so firefighting crews can obtain clear information on the environment they are being sent into. "With a drone, firefighters can detect hot spots and measure the temperature inside of a structure to help crews make smarter decisions and efficiently put out the fire," said Bergmann. A thermal camera can additionally track the path of flames and quickly scan over large areas of ground for missing victims who could still be trapped. Images collected can also be geo-tagged and sent back to crews so that they can better monitor a fire and and plan out how they will extinguish it.

Data and footage collected by a drone can also serve as an important asset when it comes to future investigation. "The information you can collect with a drone is information that you can have forever," said Bergmann. "The data is usable in court, for further regulatory experiments of where they want to change regulations, or for insurance purposes."

Future advancements in drone technology will have them working more autonomously to put out flames. Further research is currently being conducted to have drones carry in water to remote locations in the event of a wildfire and even act as flying fire extinguishers to help firefighters put out flames in hard to reach areas.

Law Enforcement

A drone can serve and protect by providing police with an extra set of eyes in the sky to keep law enforcement and the public safer. With a drone in the air, police can better detect unseen danger without putting anyone in harm's way. According to Bergmann, a drone can act as a pre-flight to an event so police can better plan and respond to events such as terrorist, hostage, or chase situations.

With the right equipment attached, a drone can help investigators record, analyze and assess crime scenes. "It's extremely important that police get the right amount of information and detail to paint a perfect visual presentation of what happened at a crime scene," said Bergmann. A drone's capability to create highly accurate 3D models and surveys of an area means that authorities can attain data to be used in court, or for further investigation and analyzation.

A thermal camera attached to a drone can even assist police in pinpointing grow ops. By analyzing temperatures of suspected grow ups, police can determine whether or not to further pursue an investigation. "Police can read the heat signature of a home," said Bergmann. "If it's the middle of the summer and there is a house that is 40 degrees' that is clear indicator to police to investigate further."


Drones could soon be as essential as ambulances when it comes to the future of emergency response missions. "Drone usage is becoming more and more popular simply because of the costs and time saved," said Johnson. "In contrast to putting a helicopter in the air they are a lot less expensive, and you can attach equipment to a drone that can better server your needs at a fraction of the cost."

Future advancements will increase the length of time in which a drone can fly as well as allow drones to carry a heavier payload to send in fresh water, food, and medicine to help victims survive emergency events. Image recognition and mapping algorithms will also play an increased part in the role drones play in emergency response scenarios.

Though drones can never replace a rescuer it will be one more tool in a crew's arsenal to collect information to better assess dangerous situations and save lives. "We are seeing the prices coming down, the technology getting better, and increasingly more user-friendly," said Bergmann. With all of the quick evolving advancements in drone technology, the potential for drones in the emergency response sector is only going to reach new heights.