New design and technology are changing the way in which search and rescue (SAR) missions are being conducted. Indeed, several improvements have been witnessed in terms of cameras, searchlights, helmet-mounted displays, wireless crew communications, spin prevention technology and equipment in order to find missing people more safely and quickly.
Caleb Carr, Chief Executive Officer of Vita Inclinata Technologies, believes that such innovations are expanding the operational envelope for SAR missions: “While we will always try to bring everyone home, unfortunately, however, this is not the case sometimes. Because of this, leveraging new technology in the SAR industry enables crews to conduct missions that were too difficult, too far or too unfeasible only a decade ago.”
Visuals and communication
We use the Safire 380 HD FLIR System and the Trakka beam A800 searchlight, both of these systems are a couple of generations ahead of the capability that we have operating in the four other S-92s that we operate,
The Waterford base of the Irish Coast Guard (CHC IRL) operates the EI-ICS aircraft callsign Rescue 117. This aircraft is unusual in the fleet as it is different to the other four S-92s operated in Ireland as a result of the fatal loss of EI-ICR and her four-person crew at Blackrock Co Mayo three years ago. In the early hours of 14 March 2017, a Sikorsky S-92 helicopter operated by CHC Helicopter under contract to the Irish Coast Guard (call sign Rescue 116) crashed into the sea while supporting a rescue operation off County Mayo, on Ireland’s west coast. All four crew members on board, including captain Dara Fitzpatrick, were killed. The preliminary report by the Air Accident Investigation Unit found that the helicopter had hit the island, which was registered in the craft’s GPS mapping system, but not on EGPWS.
“We use the Safire 380 HD FLIR System and the Trakka beam A800 searchlight, both of these systems are a couple of generations ahead of the capability that we have operating in the four other S-92s that we operate,” explained Keith Carolan, SAR technical crew and Paramedic at the Irish Coast Guard. “The laser system alone on the Safire expands our ability to allow for accurate measuring of distance and direction to multiple targets and also for allowing the measuring of height of obstacles in our area of operations. It also allows for the tracking of multiple targets over both land and sea through the use of box iconology on multiple targets, the amount of which can be chosen by the operator. This reduces the workload on the operator at the mission control station, allowing for easier FLIR search and less eye strain.”
The Irish Coast Guard’s Trakka beam searchlight has numerous color selections, which allow for use in different operational environments, including fog, sea spray and for use with NVGs, which the Irish Coast Guard is hoping to roll out to all its bases in the next year. “The Euronav 7 system we use allows very successfull integration between the user at the mission control station and the FMS system to reduce the pilot’s work level. It also allows for a greater understanding and spatial awareness between cockpit and the SAR technical crew, [so] as a result, the SAR technical crews have a more meaningful and active participation in the SAR operations they are engaged in,” said Carolan.
Reducing the workload of the pilot in bad weather conditions is vital to the safety of a SAR mission, and Universal Avionics has developed its new ClearVision product with this in mind. The company told AirMed&Rescue: “Technologies for Helmet Mounted and Head Wearable Displays (HWD) are adding safety and increased capabilities in the SAR arena. We are refining our ClearVision HWD with changes directly applicable to SAR operations. Synthetic vision imagery provides a 360-degree capability for terrain and obstacle detection in rotorcraft applications. Enhanced vision cameras provide improved pilot visibility in degraded visual environments, including haze, smoke, fog, smog and light precipitation. This technology will continue to improve, and we expect to see SAR operators taking advantage of this in the near future.”
Technological improvements are being witnessed also with regards to the provision of crew communication and tracking, according to Michael Eddy, Marketing & Communications Manager for Flightcell International. He told AirMed&Rescue: “We have recently added a capability to overlay Rhotheta RT-600 direction finder data on a map, this is accessible via an onboard tablet and it allows the crew to easily home in on a UHF/VHF or marine beacon.”
Carolan believes that a major innovation is the use of mobile phone technology for locating persons lost while hill walking, mountain biking, canoeing/kayaking, SUP boarding etc. “This technology is responsible for saving many lives and hundreds of man hours of searching. This technology has been one of the best tools of the last decade that has been used by the Coast Guard here in Ireland to assist us in completing our job successfully,” he said. “We have become very used to asking the Coast Guard to ping the location of caller(s) for a whole range of incidents and then using the information gleaned to update positions for the FMS. Thus reducing the need for prolonged FLIR/visual searches over vast tracts of search areas and thus reducing the work load of the whole crew.”
Wide-area motion imagery (WAMI) systems, though they have been used primarily on the battlefield to protect forward operating bases and roll up the insurgent networks planting improvised explosive devices, can easily be deployed for SAR missions. “WAMI systems are advanced and come with lightweight airborne sensors that can be mounted on a variety of platforms – planes, helicopters, aerostats and unmanned aircraft systems,” explained Susan Kerin, Director of Communications, Logos Technologies. “What makes WAMI systems different from standard video cameras is their extended field of view; a single sensor can image a whole city-sized area – kilometers in diameter – at once and in real time. WAMI is true optical imagery, more readily interpretable than synthetic aperture radar data.”
Kerin points out that WAMI allows rescue teams to survey damage and find victims faster than if they had to rely solely on static satellite imagery or live but narrow-field cameras.
WAMI allows rescue teams to survey damage and find victims faster than if they had to rely solely on static satellite imagery or live but narrow-field cameras
“With WAMI systems, one does not have to conduct multiple sorties over an area to see what is happening on the ground. It is not necessary to track one incident at the expense of another. A single sensor can co-ordinate concurrent rescue efforts.” She continued: “One advantage of WAMI systems is that they can also find boats at sea or people out in open terrain, for example desert or scrubland – covering vast areas in a short period of time, where time can mean the difference between life and death.”
WAMI systems typically image in medium resolution. This is enough to detect and track a vehicle or a moving person. Should a closer look be required, a WAMI system can cue a standard high-resolution camera to tease out more identifying details. “This pairing of sensors makes both more effective. In the case of anticipated weather events, a WAMI system can be used to update evacuation plans for areas expected to be hit by a deadly storm,” pointed out Kerin. “The WAMI can also identify potential bottlenecks along highways and bridges; it can help rescue workers by tracking the advance of flood waters and identifying the best places to deliver aid and supplies or set up field hospitals. And as for dealing with wildfires, sever WAMI systems, such as the BlackKite sensor and the aerostat-mounted Kestrel Block II, have built-in infrared cameras. These infrared WAMI systems can detect small fires that have just broken out, so one does not have to wait until a plume of smoke breaks the horizon to know there is danger. They are even sensitive enough to detect a lit cigarette.” Given the recent scale of bushfires in Australia, and the upcoming summer season in the northern hemisphere, the ability to accurately track and control outbreaks before they become too large is invaluable.
WAMI systems can support firefighters on the ground by letting them know where they are in relation to various fires and in what directions those fires are spreading and how fast. “This information keeps firefighters, rescue teams and survivors safe. These systems can also follow the effectiveness of retardant efforts and conduct post-fire assessments, providing crucial insights for the future and, thus, saving more lives,” concluded Kerin.
Hoisting for the new generation
While some technological innovations in the SAR world have come from tweaking existing products, others result directly from user feedback, where operators have seen a gap in their equipment that needs filling. According to Collins Aerospace, listening to customers was key in the development of Pegasus, its newest hoist. Nick Demogines, Director of Business Development for Hoist & Winch at Collins Aerospace, told AirMed&Rescue: “We launched a comprehensive ‘voice of the customer’ campaign in 2015 to solicit candid feedback from all our operators, customers, airframers and maintainers about how we could improve upon our existing hoists with a new design. Pegasus will be our first clean-sheet design in more than 20 years, and it incorporates all the lessons we’ve learned over four decades in the hoist business.”
Customer feedback resulted in Collins simplifying the hoist’s maintenance – Pegasus has a modular and configurable architecture, with field-replaceable LRUs that enable advanced service in the field to reduce downtime and improve mission readiness. Demogines continued: “Several of our customers asked if we could provide more data on the hoist’s performance, so we equipped Pegasus with DASH, a Data Acquisition Sensing and Health system that monitors and records critical hoist parameters including load, speed, cycles and temperatures for predictive health maintenance. With operators increasingly using hoists for Human External Cargo (HEC) missions, we also designed Pegasus to comply with the latest regulations for HEC.”
The miniaturization of computers and electronic systems has been one of the technological changes that have made the most significant difference to SAR missions
The miniaturization of computers and electronic systems has been one of the technological changes that have made the most significant difference to SAR missions. “Whether it is our load stability system (LSS), which leverages small electric duct fans to provide counter thrust or emergency beacons, all these new technologies leverage smaller computer systems, batteries, and electronics that were not possible a decade ago,” commented Carr. “With the miniaturization of technology components, it is possible for a hiker to carry an emergency beacon and for crews to leverage fly-by-wire capabilities to a rescue litter. Operators have not only embraced new technology but have identified problems and went out to solve them with technology. SAR operators always look for the thing that will keep their subjects and themselves safe, if one can prove that of the technology, SAR operators will adopt it rapidly.”
Making the lives of SAR personnel who operate in mountainous regions safer is Recco – the Recco rescue service is an internationally used avalanche burial search system that can be found at over 900 ski resorts around the world and is designed to help professional mountain rescue services find skiers that have been buried by snow or injured by an avalanche or fall. Over 200 brand manufacturers incorporate the technology into their backpacks, ski clothes, ski helmets, and accessories – it is the size of a small battery. A detector attached to the helicopter from a long line is used to scan the territory by searching for signals that are automatically sent from any ski helmet or accessory that’s equipped with the Recco rescue reflector sticker. The helicopter can then follow the signal path to reach the buried or injured skier.
According to Carr, there are some areas where developers would need to concentrate their efforts in the future so that technology could further improve the outcomes of SAR missions. “Besides the elimination of swing and sway of helicopter hoisting operations, there is an important need for the expansion for rapid deployment of support for SAR situations,” he said. “Whether it is via drone delivery of medical supplies or a raft into the sea, the ‘golden hour’ as we call it is shortened because SAR operators take time to get the emergency call, mobilize, and then get on scene. If this time can be cut down, it will provide operators a greater change to what could be deadly outcomes.”
Looking at the future of WAMI in SAR operations, it is not really a case of developing new technology, but more one of adapting the technology for a new purpose. “WAMI is already in existence. It has already been used by both the military and law enforcement for over a decade. It is just a matter of adopting the system for SAR and mounting them on available aircraft,” said Kerin. “Some WAMI systems are encased in pods that can be attached to a variety of helicopters, planes and UAVs, so it is really a flexible solution. There are even podded systems that are housed along with other sensors, such as high-definition spotter cameras or wide-area hyperspectral cameras, with each sensor cross-cueing the other. Other WAMI systems are mounted to tethered blimps, or aerostats, allowing for true persistent surveillance over an area, operating 24 hours a day, for weeks at a stretch. There is no shortage of options for rescue teams.”
Technological innovations are indeed moving at a blistering pace and the amount of new equipment arriving on the market is extensive. “HUDs, wireless waterproof systems that video link to drones and video link to operators on the ground via Bluetooth are all changing the face of the SAR environment,” said Carolan. “Perhaps the community would like to see more innovation in the area of protective clothing for SAR technical crews,
the community would like to see more innovation in the area of protective clothing for SAR technical crews
integrated harness and lifejackets, gel style anti-ballistic protective undergarments, immersions suits with all this technology integrated into them. It would be interesting to also include screens for real-time FLIR camera feed, video comm links to the medical facility built into helmets, and the ability to communicate live (camera and voice) through social media.”
More work to be done, then, for companies willing to push the boundaries and ensure that SAR operators around the world have the best tools at their disposal.