Drone team to support search and rescue on Essex coastline
Jun 14, 2019
By Paul Jacques

The Essex Police drone unit will be supporting search and rescue operations around the coast of Essex during a 12-month trial with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). 

Essex Police says from helping to search for casualties in hazardous locations and directing HM Coastguard and RNLI lifeboat crews to their locations to enable emergency services to risk-assess situations before deploying rescue personnel to the scene, its drone unit will provide a “range of operational benefits” to the search and rescue teams. 

Drone unit manager Perran Bonner said it will be available to assist both organisations by providing a live view of the county’s coast, investigating suspicious behaviour, responding to welfare concerns or searching for a missing person. 

“The technology available to us and the expertise of our officers mean that we can provide accurate and up-to-date information to the relevant people, ensuring that a quick and appropriate response can be taken, that Essex residents and visitors are kept safe and anyone using our coastline to commit crime is brought to justice,” he added. 

The year-long trial is designed to provide HM Coastguard rescue teams with more eyes in the sky to assist with search and rescue operations around the county’s coastline, supporting the vital work of its teams and the RNLI. 

At the end of the year-long pilot, the impact that drones have had on coastal search and rescue activity in the region will be assessed, and that information will help inform the MCA and RNLI’s ongoing work to explore the role that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can play in future search and rescue activity. 

HM Coastguard teams from Walton, Clacton, Mersea Island, South Woodham Ferrers, Southend and Canvey Island will be taking part in the trial, supported by a range of inshore and all-weather lifeboats and hovercraft strategically located at six RNLI lifeboat stations along that stretch of the Essex coastline. 

Phil Hanson, aviation technical assurance manager at the MCA, said: “Thanks to the Essex Police drone unit we are able to trial this innovative technology to help rescuers on the front line with more accurate aerial vision, conduct searches in hard to reach or hazardous areas, assist with night-time thermal imagery searches and relaying messages from rescuers to casualties. 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.”  

He stressed that the drones would not replace the existing Coastguard helicopters, Coastguard rescue teams, RNLI or independent lifeboats, but added: “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, said: “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.” 

Specialist officers and staff from the Essex Police drone unit also hosted a free workshop for drone enthusiasts earlier this month to help them understand the ‘dos and don’ts’ of flying UAVs. 

The three hour course, which was supported by UK airspace governing body, the Civil Aviation Authority, gave instruction on drone legislation, pilot responsibilities and the drone code, as well as offering tips on how pilots can get the most from their drone. 

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