We've seen autonomous aircraft doing everything from spraying crops to surveying wildlife, and now the Swiss air rescue organization Rega has announced a drone that's capable of searching for and finding missing people all on its own.
Thanks to an array of on-board sensors, including a daylight camera, a thermal camera, an infrared camera, and a phone-tracking tool, the Rega drone is able to scan large areas of terrain for anyone who has got themselves into trouble in the mountains.
Custom-made algorithms crunch the data coming through from the various cameras on the Rega drone and identify potential sightings of people – any promising leads are then relayed to operators back at base. It can work in poor visibility too, conditions which can sometimes ground the standard air rescue helicopters.
Where the new aircraft has the edge over most commercially available drones is the way in which it can operate for several hours at a distance of several kilometers, without being directly controlled by a human operator.
The drone comprises three rotor blades with a diameter of just over 2 meters (6.5 ft). Designed to fly at an altitude of 80-100 meters (262-328 ft), it uses satellite navigation techniques to methodically cover a predefined area autonomously. It comes with anti-collision systems for avoiding power lines and other aircraft too.
As well as being fitted with an emergency parachute, the Rega drone won't be sent over airports or heavily populated areas. If it does have to come down, the risk to people on the ground should be minimal.
"Ever since it was founded, Rega has continually used cutting-edge technology to further improve air rescue and to come to the aid of even more people in distress," Rega CEO Ernst Kohler said in a press statement. "I am confident that the Rega drone will expand our scope of operations even further."
"We observed the development of drone technology from an early stage and were always convinced that drones could be of help in particular on search missions," added Rega Head of Helicopter Operations Sascha Hardegger.
For now, this Rega drone can't actually help or deliver medicine to stranded individuals. Instead, it's intended to work alongside the rescue crew and as a supplementary aid to the helicopters already in operation.
The drone has already been a year and a half in testing and should be ready to embark on solo missions sometime in 2020, Rega has said. The organization ran 160 air searches for missing people in 2018, and the new drone should end up making a real difference in locating people and saving lives.
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