Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or drones, have been used for military and government purposes for many years.  Recently, the consumer and commercial drone industry is growing exponentially.  Companies like UPS, Amazon, transportation agencies, telecommunications companies, Shell, and various media outlets are all capitalizing on the capabilities of drones.

It seems like drones in search and rescue (SAR) would be a natural fit due to their need to cover substantial ground in often complex terrain.  Unfortunately, there has been no published scientific literature on the topic… until now.  In March 2017, Van Tilburg published an article in Wilderness and Environmental Medicine titled “First report of using unmanned aircraft systems (drones) for search and rescue.”  As he so aptly states in the title, this article is the first of its kind and is likely to be the beginning of a new wave of research in SAR.

In the paper, Van Tilburg describes two cases.  In the first case, the rescue crew makes several attempts to access a member of a canyoneering group that fell into a slot canyon while trying to free solo climb in order to retrieve his stuck rope.  The rescue team did not have the gear they needed to access the victim and night was falling.  Contact had not been made yet when a local citizen brought a drone.  Controlled by an iPad, the pilot was able to fly into the slot canyon and visually confirm the victim’s fatality.  The rescue crew avoided a dangerous rappel in the dark and another crew successfully recovered the body the next day.

In the second case, the rescue team used drones to search for a woman that had been reported missing in steep, difficult terrain.  The woman was not found during the official search, but the use of drones allowed for visualization of several areas (cliffs, creek bottom) that would have been difficult or impossible to search on foot.

Now this all sounds wonderful and I imagine drones have great potential as part of a SAR team (ie: act as an antenna for radios, delivery of equipment to victims or search crews, mapping, using RECCO or avalanche beacons, leading victims to safety, signaling, and so on).

However, there are some downfalls of drones including radio interference, power required, short flight times, noise, limited weight carrying capacity, coordination with other vehicles in the air (ie: helicopters), and of course crashes.  SAR organizations must also consider regulations from the Federal Aviation Administration and local guidelines.  For example, National Park Services currently has a ban on drones until guidelines can be written.  On top of all this, the extra funding, training, and licensing required to operate a drone may not be feasible for small to medium sized SAR operations.


Overall, drones have great potential in SAR but the technology in this setting is relatively new, the territory is uncharted, and the pitfalls are many.  Hopefully, with time, education, research, and experience we can start to use these wonderful tools as adjuncts in SAR missions.

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Alana Hawley, M.D.
Wilderness Medicine Fellowship, University of Utah
PGY-5 Emergency Medicine, McMaster University


Van Tilburg, C.  (2017).  First report of using unmanned aircraft systems (drones) for search and rescue.  Wilderness & Environmental Medicine.  http://dx.doi.org.libaccess.lib.mcmaster.ca/10.1016/j.wem.2016.12.010

Photo credit: Jason Blackeye via Unsplash