Drones can trace their origins back to the kinds of hobbyists who for years have enjoyed flying remote controlled model aircraft, but in recent years, what used to be thought of as just toys have really come of age. Drones are now a well-established tool for making light of all kinds of tasks, and one of the latest to receive attention is search and rescue. 

In 2013, the search for a missing California man inspired the creation of SWARM, which stands for Search With Aerial Rc Multi-rotor. This is a volunteer organization consisting of drone pilots who volunteer their time to assist with missing persons operations, and it’s grown to be a worldwide network with over 1100 multi-rotor and fixed wing pilots registered. 

It’s a worthy endeavor that has highlighted the effectiveness of this technology over traditional search and rescue methods. 

Each miniature aircraft can be fitted with high-resolution video cameras to reconnoiter an area. They can do this safely, quickly and at a fraction of the cost involved in using a regular helicopter (or for that matter, ground crew.)

On-board video recording allows operatives to scan a wide area and then review the footage later for any potential sightings of the missing person, or other clues that might point to their whereabouts. Even better, FPV (first person view) technology allows for surveys in real-time, as live pictures are sent to the controller for instant evaluation. Search and rescue drones can report the location of any points of interest and relate them to rescuers on the ground. 

The flight times for electric drones is limited to somewhere between 10 and 25 minutes, which may not seem like much, but it’s certainly enough to look over an area that’s miles wide. The pilot can use a zigzagging search pattern or fly out from the center of a spiral, either of which will cheaply and effectively save ground workers several hours of searching. This is great in terms of cost, but also, it’s great for minimizing the time that victims spend out of doors without food and shelter.

Another benefit of multirotor search and rescue drones is that they have the potential to act as delivery agents. For instance, if someone was stuck in a hard to reach location, essential supplies such as water or medicine could be quickly and easily passed on to them long before rescue workers could get there.

In time, it’s probably likely that more search and rescue drones will be provided by officially sanctioned organizations, but for the moment the majority of pilots are volunteers donating their own time and incurring their own expenses for this worthwhile cause.