Drones are becoming increasingly helpful in a wide array of situations. They have a lot of potential, and are already being use by police forces looking for fugitives or missing persons as well as by fire departments to inspect potentially dangerous structures and situations while staying out of harm’s way. It’s therefore not surprising that lifeboat workers are interested in seeing if drones could be a helpful tool to help locate people lost at sea.

The challenge with looking for people from the boat is that if the sea isn’t calm, it can be extremely challenging to see well enough to find anything. When the sea is rough, lifeboat operators have to rely on particularly big swells, which puts the boat in a higher position, allowing them to look down at the surrounding water. Unfortunately, if whoever they’re looking for are at that moment in a trough, there is still the chance that they will be missed. Obviously, when someone is lost in choppy seas, time is of the essence – if exhaustion doesn’t come first, hypothermia won’t be far behind.

This is why a lifeboat service located in Norfolk, England, thinks that drones could be very useful in search and rescue missions. The drones they are currently testing are equipped with cameras that relay live footage to monitors located inside the lifeboats themselves. This would allow the drone operator to search a greater area much more quickly, and the drone coordinates could potentially allow the lifeboat operator to be able to reach whoever is adrift faster.

There are, however, a few technicalities to work out. First, because of the size and weight of the drone, it might be challenging to operate it successfully in windy conditions. Depending on the weather, visibility could also be poor, but the drone’s eye will probably still be better than whatever can be seen from the boat. Then there’s the UK law that states that drone operators must at all times have a direct view of the drone itself. This could prove to be a problem – if the drone can’t scout far enough ahead, the chances of finding anyone in time are greatly diminished. The lifeboat service is therefore appealing to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to allow them to forego this directive when the drone is over the water.

I can see how drones might be useful in search and rescue operations over water. Hopefully lifeboat help and rescue drones are something we’ll see in the near future.

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