British Coastguard Flying Search and Rescue UAVs for First Time

For the first time ever unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) flew safety overwatch in support of search and rescue (SAR) missions for the British Coastguard (HMCG) over the weekend of 1/2 August 2020. The aircraft supported emergency response in north Wales both in maritime and mountain search and rescue.

Currently, HMCG’s helicopters provide support for inland search and rescue which includes the mountain regions, as well in maritime environments and the unmanned aircraft worked alongside those.

Operated by Bristow, which provides HMCG Search and Rescue Helicopter Services under contract, the unmanned aerial vehicles operated from Caernarfon in Wales, providing safety patrols across beaches from Conwy Bay to Llandudno and across the Snowdonia mountain range. The event was an operational trial aimed at testing the utility of unmanned aircraft in live situations and response.

The UAVs under evaluation are two Schiebel S-100 systems, which have been undertaking a three-month test programme which began in March this year. Initially, the unmanned aircraft will operate only at weekends for HM Coastguard with Bristow carrying on routine testing during the week.

Russ Torbet, Director UK Search and Rescue, Bristow Helicopters Ltd, said:

“UAV technology has advanced to the stage where its deployment significantly enhances the capability of air search and rescue operations, improving the reach of the service and reducing risk for the public and our crews. These systems provide us with an option to keep our Sikorsky S92 helicopter crew at Caernarfon on standby for lifesaving events, while the unmanned aircraft are tasked with providing safety overwatch and monitoring which those manned aircraft would otherwise have been sent to carry out.”

That programme is designed to complement work being carried out by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to develop regulations under which UAVs can operate as SAR aircraft. Unmanned aircraft are expected to play a key role when UKSAR2G, the UK’s new search and rescue service, begins operations in 2024.