Waypoint

Robots to the Rescue — Researching How Drones Can Help Save Lives

In early 2016, senseFly took part in a European Commission project, tasked with assessing the value of drones in search and rescue situations. The trials were challenging but the results encouraging, as explained in our new case study.

Equipped with an eBee mapping drone and an albris inspection UAV, senseFly’s team headed to Aix en Provence in France alongside CartONG and Entente Valabre – Pole Nouvelles Technologies. The goal: complete two post-disaster trials that would assess drone technology’s potential, and potentially useful applications, within search and rescue (SAR).

“This research will define the best use of drones for SAR teams to increase the capacity of their efforts, in terms of monitoring disaster zones, assessing needs and providing relief efforts,” says Sylvie de Laborderie, GIS Officer at CartONG. “This will support better, more effective solutions for firefighters and civil security workers in evaluating disaster scenarios.”

Using the first day’s drone-sourced maps, the SAR team worked alongside senseFly’s drone team to monitor post-disaster sites on day two, viewing the albris’ live video feed.
Using the first day’s drone-sourced maps, the SAR team worked alongside senseFly’s drone team to monitor post-disaster sites on day two, viewing the albris’ live video feed.

For CartONG, the choice to bring in senseFly drones for this particular project was clear, de Laborderie says, since “they are operational and easy to use for nontechnical humanitarian workers”.

Setting up scenarios

The purpose of the project’s first mission was to create quick, up-to-date, high-resolution orthomosaics (maps) of an old commercial centre and a farm. The second mission called for the active monitoring of these disaster zones, whereby the SAR team would use the drone’s video feedback to search and identify priority objects or areas; less about data outputs and more the usability of the drone’s live video feed and sensors.

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Assessing the inside of the commercial centre with the senseFly albris drone.

Day 1: Horizontal mapping

The first day was dedicated to producing maps with the eBee – at the farm – and albris quadcopter – at the commercial centre.

The teams planned their missions by defining the required image overlap and ground resolution in each drone’s eMotion flight planning software, activating the program’s SRTM elevation data option in order to keep the software’s automatically generated waypoints and flight lines at a consistent height above ground level.

Day 2: Quadcopter monitoring

In day 2’s recovery simulation, the SAR team used the maps produced on the first day to scout the two sites first on foot.

The scouting involved analysing where potential victims might be located and assessing where to fly the albris thereafter to identify ‘post-disaster’ survivors, through staff watching the drone’s live thermal video feed. This included flying indoors, in GPS-deprived environments and beyond line of sight, with staff relying upon feedback from the drone’s situational awareness cameras and sensors to remain safe and avoid surface contact.

The albris’ ScreenFly flight mode – a highly assisted manual method of flying – is key for this type of SAR mission, says de Laborderie, since in this mode a team can use all the drone’s cameras during the same flight.

As a result of this exercise, the SAR team confirmed there were two victims to rescue at the commercial centre. In fact, one of these victims had been missed during the SAR team’s initial walk through, but was found a few minutes later thanks to the output from albris’ infrared camera.

One of these victims had been missed during the SAR team’s initial walk through, but was found a few minutes later thanks to the output from albris’ infrared camera

Positive feedback

The drone proved itself to be a viable and valuable complementary solution to existing search methods such as on foot and using trained SAR dogs. CartONG’s de Laborderie was very pleased with the results. She explains that the drones’ data “helped staff to strategise for deployment, to see where they wanted to focus, save time in the field, and provide safer searching techniques. The results we saw prove that SAR teams should use an experienced drone operator for all their missions”.

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