Mountain Rescue England and Wales (MREW) teams have been deploying drones in small numbers since the technology first became affordable and viable, six years ago. The organisation now has in the region of 50 trained pilots. Earlier this year, I took on the new role of MREW National Drone Officer supporting pilots across our eight regions.
The MREW drone group works closely with partner agencies including police, fire and rescue, National Police Air Service, lowland rescue services, Scottish Mountain Rescue and the Civil Aviation Authority. We also consider the current regulatory framework within which MREW pilots must operate and the future direction of both the regulatory and operational aspects of drone use.
Given each MR team’s limited donated funds, a substantial investment in drone equipment and training costs, it’s important that it has a positive impact on operational efficiency and safety. At present, not all teams have decided to make this investment. As more robust equipment becomes available and affordable, it is envisaged that drone deployments will become more common place.
Looking for new ways of working
Many factors affect the outcome of a search, whether it be on foot, with dogs, by helicopter or with drones. These include the weather conditions, resource availability, terrain, the size of the potential search area and the techniques deployed. One avenue being explored by the MREW drone group is the application of semi-autonomous grid patterns being flown while capturing high resolution still images for subsequent analysis.
MREW volunteers from the Lake District have developed a general search management tool over several years, which is now being widely used throughout the organisation. The latest release includes support for drone missions and the image analysis capability to process the data captured by the drone. It is a straightforward process for a search planner to export the required route file which is then loaded directly onto the aircraft before deployment. The flight route and image spacing is programmed such that each image captured overlaps with the other adjacent images. This ensures that objects potentially not visible from one angle can be picked up from a different angle.
The system uses precise Ordnance Survey elevation data to ensure the aircraft maintains a set height above the terrain while also keeping the camera perpendicular to any contours beneath. Each pattern flown is designed to be completed on a single battery to simplify the workflow that the operator needs to follow.
The pilot is still on scene and manages the safety aspects of the flight. This ensures the team stays within the Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) rules required by the regulator and can quickly respond to any dynamic hazards that may arise inflight. Post flight, the team on the ground load the captured images into the tool and this detects anomalies in the image set based on colour. These are identified to the operator for further investigation.
These developments are being shared across MREW and other teams in England and Wales now have another powerful ‘tool in the box’ when deciding how to deploy their drones at an incident. Recent experience in Scotland (see below) shows just what can be achieved and I very much expect lives to be saved by the effective use of drones in the months ahead.
Recent Glen Coe experience
The still image technique was recently deployed on a long running search in the Scottish Highlands. In early September 2023, Police Scotland received a call to report a hillwalker who had not returned after a planned trip in the Glencoe area of the Scottish Highlands. The police mobilised the nearby Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team (MRT) and a full-scale search operation launched in earnest.
What followed was a herculean effort, involving multiple MRTs, Coastguard helicopters, RAF MRTs, search dogs, drones and police cell data analysis. Despite the exhaustive efforts from all involved, and some encouraging signs (such as the finding of the missing person’s rucksack), Glencoe MRT made the difficult decision to scale back their operations after ten days of effort. Various MRT members continued going out on most free days, but the complexity of the ground and size of the area made work difficult for them.
During the latter stages of the operation, Glencoe MRT were approached by members of the Lake District Search and Mountain Rescue Association (LDSAMRA) drone group, who offered to assist with the drone search software. Members of the LDSAMRA group met with a representative from Glencoe MRT, who briefed them on the extensive efforts conducted by their team, and theories they had developed.
Some time passed waiting for a weather window, but eventually a team from LDSAMRA, comprised of members of both Cockermouth MRT and Duddon and Furness MRT, made their way to Glencoe. Several theories were discussed, and deployment plans were drawn using the software tool. The team of three were to split up and each search opposite faces in the valley where the missing person’s rucksack had been found. The ground had already been covered multiple times on foot, and overflown by helicopters, but was so broken and complex it remained the most likely location.
On the morning of Tuesday 24th October, the team deployed, accompanied by a member of Glencoe MRT. They split up, as planned, and began searching their respective areas.
Later that morning, one of the drone search teams reported a potential find in their area. The other team diverted their drone to the point of interest, and it was confirmed to be the missing walker. Glencoe MRT and the police were informed while the hill team made their way to the location of the casualty. They were joined by the rest of Glencoe MRT who conducted a very swift and professional evacuation.
While still a tragic end to a search story, at least the deceased man’s family were not left in limbo and rescuers knew they’d done everything possible.
Mountain Rescue England and Wales is the representative body for the 47 individual teams operating across England and Wales. These teams are also organised into eight regions but they are all separate charities with their own trustees and fundraising.
All 3,500 plus members are volunteers and the teams are financed primarily by donations from the public with support from their regional organisations and MREW.
MREW represents mountain rescue at UKSAR but there is also significant liaison and partnership at a local level with emergency planning, HM Coastguard, ambulance services and fire and rescue organisations as well as other voluntary organisations.