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Flying to the rescue: Scottish mountain teams turn to drones

Scotland’s mountain rescue teams have begun using advanced drones to search for injured and missing climbers lost in often dangerous and isolated terrain in the Highlands.

Weighing just under a kilogram, the drones can be equipped with flashlights, heat-sensing cameras, speakers and even radio handsets, allowing rescuers to search inaccessible trenches and remote areas faster and safer than before.

The technology has been picked up quickly over the past year by Scotland’s 28 volunteer rescue teams, who have assisted in recent searches for victims and missing people in Ben Nevis, the Southern Highlands, Fife and the Trossachs.

Drone experts believe the devices could soon serve as emergency cell phone masts, providing coverage deep in the mountains, over moors and remote coasts, allowing rescue teams to detect signals from missing hikers or connect rescuers in mobile dead zones.

“The drones are definitely an asset, there’s no question about that,” said John Stevenson, a team leader of Lochaber’s mountain rescue team in Fort William, which covers Ben Nevis and now operates four drones. “We put drones in places where years ago we might have thought twice about placing people.”

Jim Cooper launches a DGI Mavic drone. Photo: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Tom Nash, the founder of the Search and Rescue Aerial Association Scotland (Saraa), a charity that trains drone pilots, said the technology had the potential to transform rescue and search operations. In 2020, the 24 teams that were members of Scottish Mountain Rescue had 671 calls.

“Risk reduction is an important use of a drone. Where before someone had to do a rope rescue or a stretcher lift, you had a poor person dangling over the edge of a cliff, backing with a rope, peered at me and said ‘I think we should put the rope down here’ Nash said.

Drone close-up
Drone close-up. Photo: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

“Well, just put the drone 20 meters out on the other side of the cliff and look back, you can see where the victim is. And our rope experts can say ‘our safest rope line is here until here’. You can illuminate it at night. We can turn on a loudspeaker and if we know it’s going to take a while, we can talk to the victim and say help is on the way, ‘Give us a thumbs up if you’re okay but can’t move’. That is a very important use.”

Nash, a former RAF Tornado navigator turned commercial drone operator, has helped train 15 volunteers with eight rescue teams in Scotland to become qualified drone pilots. Saraa has six operational drones of its own and had four drone support callout requests in 2020; in 2021 that jumped to 15. Separately, rescue teams such as Glen Coe and Lochaber have their own equipment.

Nash and Stevenson said there were restrictions: drones cannot be used in rain, snow or fog. There are legal height restrictions and they are currently limited to line of sight which means a pilot must be able to see the craft.

Mike Smith reviews drone footage back at base
Mike Smith reviews the drone footage at the base. Photo: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Rescue teams are also currently grounding their drones when a search and rescue helicopter is involved. But Lochaber has learned that they can be programmed to conduct systematic searches over a hill much faster than a search team on foot, allowing rescue coordinators to study the footage back at base.

‘They are great. You can see at a glance where you are,” says Stevenson. His team had seen them used by French rescue teams operating on alpine ski slopes.

Nash said their roles could expand as pilots’ skills and technology improve. Nash said they could copy communications company OpenReach, which uses drones equipped with 4G phone equipment to “trot” mobile coverage over a wide area when cell towers are down. Over time, drones can deliver supplies and equipment to victims or rescue teams in difficult terrain.

“It’s so exciting because it can and will revolutionize things,” he said.