So what is a good practical use for UAVs? Read on to see why UAVs are such a great fit for SAR missions.
Civil Air Patrol
The Civil Air Patrol (CAP) is a non-profit corporation that serves as the official civilian auxiliary of the United States Air Force (USAF). CAP members are volunteer civilians, though they are expected to wear the CAP uniform when participating in activities.
I am an active Aerospace Education Member of the Civil Air Patrol (CAP). I conduct aerospace education activities for CAP cadets and other teens in my area. Aerospace education and cadet training are big parts of the CAP mission.
CAP Search and Rescue
But the CAP is best known for its search and rescue operations. In fact, the CAP flies more than 85% of all federal inland search-and-rescue missions as directed by the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center. CAP volunteer members rescue nearly 100 persons every year.
To conduct its missions, the CAP owns and operates a fleet of over 550 single-engine airplanes, such as the Cessna 172 Skyhawk. In fact, the CAP owns the largest fleet of single-engine airplanes in the world. A new well-equipped cessna 172 will set you back over $300,000.
CAP’s volunteers log about 120,000 flying hours every year as they conduct the CAP missions.
Search and Rescue Costs
Operating a single-engine airplane costs about $150/hour. That is for fuel, maintenance, and depreciation costs. Even with a 100% volunteer force, the CAP flights cost about $18 million a year.
But what if the hourly costs could be reduced to $15 an hour? With the same budget, they then could fly for ten times more hours. Ten times more air hours, if flown at the same airspeed, means ten times better chances of finding and rescuing a person in need.
That is exactly the promise that unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology holds for search and rescue operations all over the world. Dramatically reduced costs and dramatically improved effectiveness.
With much lower costs for each UAV, many more can be made available to rescue personnel. They can be carried in the back of a rescue vehicle and deployed at a moment’s notice. As technology improves, the training needs of the operator will get lower and lower.
Ideally, we want to use autonomous UAVs that do not require a human pilot on the ground. All you have to do is give them an area to search and they do the rest. They report back when they find people in need of rescue. They come back and land when they get low in fuel. They would also be responsible for all of their see and avoid activities as far as other flying aircraft.
We are not quite at the point of having inexpensive UAVs that can fly autonomously, but there is intense research going on.
Outback Rescue Challenge
Just a few days ago a team of hobbyist came close to achieving that goal. They were participating in a competition in the Australian outback. A dummy had been laid out in an area measuring about two miles square (4.5 km^2). The model airplane of the winning team scanned the area and correctly identified the dummy representing a hiker in distress. This was all done autonomously.
For their achievement, the Canberra team won $10,000. Had they dropped a bottle of water to the hiker, which was the real goal of the mission, they would have won a whopping $50,000.