Experimental Assessment of the Effectiveness of Unmanned Aerial Systems in Search and Rescue Operations

William Weldon, Purdue University


A search and rescue (SAR) operation requires a rapid, accurate, and effective response to provide the missing person the best chance of being rescued. Personnel from the local area are likely to be closest to the location of the missing person, be familiar with the area, but they may not be adequately trained, experienced, or equipped with the best tools to effectively locate, identify, and retrieve the missing person. Thus, most SAR operations rely on a mix of trained personnel and volunteers. Among the trained personnel, there is a wide variance in proficiency, experience, and access to technology, leading to some emergency response agencies being better prepared than others. Volunteers, on the other hand, could be very helpful, but are largely untrained and inexperienced, reducing their inherent likelihood of success. The primary challenge to successful SAR operations is the lack of consistently trained, adequately equipped, and diversely experienced personnel. Despite the lack of desired resources, SAR operations must be completed rapidly and emergency responders often turn to volunteers. In response to this challenge, the use of unmanned aerial systems, UAS, in small volunteer teams was proposed. Available, off-the-shelf UAS technology can be used to simplify training with the help of affordable advanced technology, and thereby enable rapid, accurate, and effective SAR operations. The following research was executed in the form of three independent, but related, studies. The first study focused on the efficiency of a UAS-equipped SAR operation; the second study focused on the accuracy of a UAS and image analysis software-enabled SAR operation; and the third study tested the ability of novice volunteers to learn and apply the new technologies (UAS plus image analysis) efficiently and effectively. The goal of these studies was to determine whether affordable commercial, off-the-shelf technologies could be used to enhance the efficiency and effectivity of SAR operations. The experimental methodology used specifically designed simulations of SAR operational scenarios. Two operational tactics were tested: (a) Equip the SAR team with UAS and (b) equip the SAR team with UAS and image analysis software. The specific scenarios selected were similar in complexity, but different enough to minimize the transfer of learning from the first study to the second study. Finally, the reference times for manual SAR operations were compared against UAS and computerized image analysis software-assisted methods. The results of the proposed studies determined whether off-the-shelf UAS and image analysis technologies could be used to enable rapid, accurate, and effective SAR operations.




Patankar, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Operations research|Remote sensing|Aerospace engineering

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