Rega designs autonomous SAR drone

The newly-designed Rega drone. Photo credit - Rega
Two men work on the Rega drone. Photo credit: Rega

Swiss air rescue company Rega, presented an innovative new addition to its search and rescue (SAR) fleet during its Annual Media Conference 2019: the newly developed Rega drone, which can autonomously scan large search areas and is equipped with various sensors, such as a thermal camera.

This latest piece of technology means that Rega has an additional device at its disposal during SAR missions – noticeably reducing the time taken to complete such missions, and therefore improving the missing person’s chances of survival. Rega notes that its new drone will be deployed in future SAR missions to ‘supplement the conventional resources – for example, if the helicopter has to remain on the ground due to poor visibility’.

Rega decided to design and build their own drone after coming to terms with the fact that ‘there is currently no drone system on the market that meets all of Rega’s requirements’ – Rega details that it is not possible to operate a relatively small, lightweight and flexible drone over a distance of several kilometres and for several hours without visual contact with the drone pilot.  "As a result, we took the initiative and decided to develop a Rega drone ourselves in collaboration with suitable partners", says Head of Helicopter Operations Sascha Hardegger; and Rega has spent the past 18 months or so working on this project.

The Rega drone has three rotor blades and a rotor diameter of just over two metres, and ‘looks like a mini helicopter’, as noted Rega. During operation, the drone flies at an altitude of 80-100 metres above ground level and scans large search areas ‘precisely and autonomously’ using satellite navigation. It can also avoid other aircrafts and objects thanks to anti-collision systems data on the in-flight computer, and should it happen across trouble, is equipped with an emergency parachute. It is also not to be deployed over densely populated regions or in the vicinity or airports or airfields.

Missing people are detected from the air using the various sensors on board the drone, and the software being implemented is being developed in collaboration with ETH Zurich. Hardegger explained that, though autonomous, the drone still requires a well-trained drone crew (comprising an operator and a pilot) to coordinate the mission with the various rescue teams.  "Difficult person searches only have a chance of succeeding if all the rescue teams involved work closely together. In certain cases, the drone will be a useful supplementary aid, but it will never completely replace the Rega helicopter and its crew,” Hardegger commented. 

Further testing is still to be done to ensure that the technology is mission-ready for 2020, but CEO Ernst Kohler added that he was sure the new drone would prove an asset to Rega’s operations: "I am confident that the Rega drone will expand our scope of operations even further."

For more information, visit the Rega website.

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