UK Coast Guard Looks Into Long-Range Drones for Search and Rescue

The Hermes 900 long-endurance drone (Elbit Systems)

Published Feb 5, 2020 6:11 PM by The Maritime Executive

The UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) is undertaking a new project to investigate if drones could help with search and rescue by visiting the scene ahead of air, sea or land based recovery teams. The agency is interested in finding out whether this advance surveillance capability could provide a picture of the situation and help to develop the best response.

In particular, the project will explore how current regulations can be changed to unlock the potential for drones to help those in distress on the UK’s coastline. Currently, the UK's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) imposes restrictions on drone flights that make it difficult to launch quickly in a response situation, according to MCA aviation requirements lead Paul Eathorne. 

The assistance would be welcome. In 2019, the MCA’s civilian search and rescue helicopters responded to seven missions a day on average, saving more than 1,600 people. In conjunction with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and other partners, MCA coordinated response efforts for over 22,000 incidents and rescued over 7,000 people.

“MCA has taken the brave step to take the lead in the development and implementation of beyond visual line of sight drones in UK airspace," said Phil Hanson, aviation technical assurance manager at the Maritime & Coastguard Agency. “The use of drones in search and rescue, counter pollution and maritime aerial observation operations will potentially increase overall efficiency and also reduce the risk to our personnel.”

MCA has contracted with Israeli drone company Elbit Systems to carry out the trial with its Hermes 900 long-endurance UAV. The maritime SAR tests will be conducted in restricted airspace in a military training area, where CAA regulations are not a limiting factor. 

Ultimately, MCA would like to see unmanned drones be incorporated into its next SAR aviation contract. Bristow operates search and rescue helicopters on MCA's behalf on a long-term charter agreement, and the contract is up for renewal in 2023; if CAA approval is granted, the next iteration could include UAV coverage, Eathorne told FlightGlobal.