Lifeboat crew using drones to help in searches and rescues
The independent lifeboat service at Caister, near Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, has got a fleet of drones fitted with lights and cameras which feed live video footage back to screens on the boat. They launch from the front of the boat and perform an automatic box search around it.
It gives the lifeboat crew a better view of the water, and helps them find a person more quickly – potentially the difference between life and death.
The technology, donated by insurance company Direct Line, is still being tested, and discussions are ongoing with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) about bringing the drones into regular use on rescues.
The drones use Direct Line’s Fleetlights prototype technology, developed in 2016 in a bid to solve a lack of street lighting.
Drones fitted with a floodlight and controlled by an app would follow a person home at night, lighting up their journey, but the concept was not widely implemented due to regulations.
Drone expert Peter King, of Total UAV, is helping to develop the technology for the Caister team.
Asked about the benefit of using drones to rescue a person at sea, he said: “Normally you’re at sea level trying to look out from the lifeboat.
“The swell is above the boat so you have to wait until you’re on the crest of a wave, and they might be in a trough.
“They might be 20m away and you still can’t find them.
“Using the drones as an eye in the sky is like having multiple coastguard helicopters up there at the same time.”
The drones’ floodlights also provide a better view at night.
CAA regulations cap the maximum legal range of a drone at 500m, but Mr King said he hoped to put forward a “safety case” for permission for the lifeboat drones to go further.
A CAA spokesman said permission could be granted in “certain circumstances for certain people”, but that drones could not sense and avoid other things to a high degree of accuracy so there were safety issues that needed to be worked through.