Swiss drone designed for search and rescue missions

By Staff Report | April 18, 2019

Swiss-based Rega has unveiled a new unmanned aircraft designed specifically to search for missing persons. While further test flights are needed before the drone system is field ready, the company intends to deploy the aircraft—likely in 2020—on missions to search for missing, injured or ill persons in advance of manned helicopter or ground rescue operations. For example, if a Rega helicopter crew is grounded due to poor visibility, a drone could be safely utilized in collaboration with various rescue partners.

Rega, which has been developing the drone over the past 18 months, says the aircraft is equipped with various sensors—including a thermal camera—allowing the drone to autonomously scan large geographical search areas. The signals from the infrared and daylight cameras are categorized in real-time on board the drone with the aid of a self-learning algorithm. If, based on the pixel pattern of the images, the algorithm "presumes" to have located a person, the drone immediately relays this information to the operator on the ground. The company also plans to use an integrated mobile phone tracking function to search for missing people, allowing the drone to locate a mobile phone in an uninhabited area from a distance of several hundred meters. The prototype of this device is currently being trialed in collaboration with Swiss police.

While the Rega drone was created to keep helicopter pilots out of harms way in dangerous conditions, skilled operators on the ground are still mission critical. "Even if the drone is unmanned and can fly autonomously, it still needs a well-trained drone crew, comprising an operator and a pilot, to coordinate the search with the various rescue teams and to deploy the drone effectively," says Sascha Hardegger, head of the company’s helicopter operations unit. "Difficult person searches only have a chance of succeeding if all the rescue teams involved work closely together. In certain cases, the drone will be a useful supplementary aid, but it will never completely replace the Rega helicopter and its crew. If the search for an ill or injured person proves successful, a Rega helicopter or other form of rescue will still be needed to recover the person or fly medical assistance to the site of the incident."

With its three rotor blades and a rotor diameter of just over two meters, the drone looks like a mini helicopter, and in appearance has little in common with commercially available multi-copter drones. During a search mission, it flies at an altitude of 80 to 100 meters above ground level and, using satellite navigation, it scans large search areas precisely and autonomously following a predefined route. It is also able to independently detect and avoid other aircraft or obstacles, such as helicopters and overhead cables. This is possible thanks to anti-collision systems, coupled with countless data stored in the drone's in-flight computer, such as digital models of the terrain and obstacle databases. The drone will not be deployed over densely populated regions or near airports or airfields. In addition, it is equipped with an emergency parachute.

Hardegger says the drone is unique to the market, both because of its physical characteristics and its ability to fly beyond visual line of sight. "We observed the development of drone technology from an early stage and were always convinced that drones could be of help in particular on search missions," Hardegger said. “However, there is currently no drone system on the market that meets all of Rega's requirements. In particular, it is not possible to operate a relatively small, lightweight and flexible drone over a distance of several kilometres and for several hours without visual contact with the drone pilot. "As a result, we took the initiative and decided to develop a Rega drone ourselves in collaboration with suitable partners.”

Rega, which operates both helicopters and air-ambulance jets, last year alone searched for missing persons from the air about 160 times. "Ever since it was founded, Rega has continually used cutting-edge technology to further improve air rescue and to come to the aid of even more people in distress,” says Rega CEO Ernst Kohler. "I am confident that the Rega drone will expand our scope of operations even further.”