Coastguard launches search and rescue drone trial

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The 12-month trial will give the Coastguard and the RNLI more eyes in the sky to spot vessels in distress at sea

Drones could be used to spot boats in distress at sea, after the Coastguard launched a 12-month trial into this technology.

The year-long pilot will take place in Essex with the help of the local police force’s dedicated drone unit, as well as Coastguard teams from Walton, Clacton, Mersea Island, South Woodham Ferrers, Southend and Canvey Island.

Essex Police already uses drones to help stop crime, but the offshore trial, which began earlier this week (April 29) will see the unmanned aerial vehicles perform a variety of roles, from investigating suspicious behaviour to searching for missing persons.

It is hoped that the drone’s thermal imaging capabilities will also help guide RNLI lifeboats to the site of a vessel in distress, particularly during the tricky last-mile location phase of a rescue.

Phil Hanson, Aviation Technical Assurance Manager at the MCA, said: “This will allow rescuers to make more informed decisions and ultimately help make the coast safer – particularly as the busy season is now almost upon us.

“Drones will not replace our Coastguard helicopters, Coastguard Rescue Teams, RNLI or independent lifeboats,” he continued. “However, it is entirely possible that they could be an additional tool to use in search and rescue and enhance our existing capabilities.”

Will Roberts, Senior Innovation Manager at the RNLI, added: “The increased situational awareness that drones provide could play a significant role in helping us locate casualties as quickly as possible. When lives are at risk, the speed at which our crews can locate and reach a casualty is vital. Being able to see the impact that drones can have in helping our lifeboat crews search and then reach casualties through this pilot will be extremely useful.

“As well as helping our lifesavers to search and locate casualties, working with Essex Police’s Drone Unit will also allow potentially dangerous scenes to be risk assessed before our volunteer lifeboat crews are deployed to the scene.”

The results of the trial will be assessed in May 2020 to see if drones could become a valuable addition to the Coastguard’s fleet.