Flying Emergency Class – The transport challenges of Search and Rescue drones

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Vangjel Gjorgjiev | Research Analyst

Date: 22 April 2022

New technological advancements tend to be a powerful driver in establishing new or incrementally redefining traditional industries and fields. An interesting example of the latter is the fusion of conventional means and new technology in the field of Search and Rescue (SaR). Intrigued by this seamless interplay between first responders and new tech, Trilateral Research has engaged in the creation, development and execution of two H2020 projects – CURSOR and INGENIOUS – that reimagine the first responders of the future.

CURSOR aims to reduce the time for detection and rescue of victims trapped under debris and to increase the personal safety of SaR teams by using novel tech such as drones, miniaturised robotic equipment and advanced sensors. INGENIOUS focuses on assisting first responders to increase effectiveness and save more lives during natural and human-made crises through the use of new tech such as drones, mobile apps, augmented reality system and smart wearable equipment.

The SaR tech equipment operates inter-connectedly with each other, alongside with the first responders who are trained to operate with the tech equipment. As a result, this collaborative effort is often referred to as a SaR Kit. The effort to fully deploy the SaR Kit in unpredictable crises, often in different, distant countries, is challenged by an obstacle of logistical nature. In particular, the transport of the high-tech drones presents a challenge due to their operation on lithium-ion batteries.

The transport of drones powered by lithium-ion batteries within the EU

The transport of lithium-ion batteries falls within the scope of Dangerous Goods Transport Regulations that are heavily regulated in light of preventing hazardous disasters and ensuring safety. This presents a challenge for high-tech drones, such as the ones used in CURSOR and INGENIOUS, since their high-capacity lithium-ion batteries make them subject to tight transport rules.

The transport of drones powered by lithium-ion batteries within the EU can be done either by air, sea freight, rail or road transport. For each different means of transport, what rules apply, greatly depends on whether the lithium-ion batteries have:

(1) nominal energy up to a maximum of 100 Wh; or

(2) nominal energy exceeding 100 Wh.

When considering high-performance drones, such as those used in CURSOR and INGENIOUS, they generally rely on lithium-ion batteries that have nominal energy exceeding 100 Wh. They necessitate such power capacity due to their characteristics, airtime and additional capabilities (e.g., different incorporated sensors). This makes them subject to stricter and harder-to-comply transport rules.

Furthermore, the transport rules of lithium-ion batteries are further specified based on how the batteries are stored for transport, with or without the drone they power. Accordingly, there are three different classifications:

(1) batteries packed without the drone;

(2) batteries packed with the drone (apart from the ones contained/plugged in batteries in the drone, at least one set of batteries aside which are not attached); and

(3) batteries contained/plugged in the drone.

Practical challenges and solutions

A defining feature of disasters, whether natural or human-made, is the state of emergency. Whenever a disaster occurs, the golden SaR rule requires immediate response action and active involvement within the first 72 hours of the start of the disaster to secure a good rescue outcome. With this time frame in mind, certain practical challenges arise when considering the inclusion of the SaR Kit, particularly the drones, in SaR operations. These challenges are in relation to the means of transport and transport regulations.

Before addressing these topics, it should be noted that the SaR tech in CURSOR and INGENIOUS are still undergoing field tests for improvement and training for first responders on how to seamlessly put them into action.

When a disaster occurs in a country distant from the place where the SaR Kit is based, the transport option immediately presents an obstacle. In fact, it becomes quite impractical to rely on sea, road or rail transport for the immediate deployment of the SaR Kit to the far-off place stricken by a disaster. These means of transport often take long hours or days to complete the journey from start to finish. However, the nature of emergent disaster situations does not offer such luxury of time.

A geographically distant crisis calls for effective solutions of rapid transport of the SaR Kit. Air transport presents to be the best option due to the short duration of flights – a maximum of few hours – between countries in the EU. In this respect, to effectively deploy the SaR Kit, it would need to be placed on the first available flight headed to the place affected by a disaster.

However, if the advantage of air transport is set aside, it becomes clear that the application of the SaR Kit finds better time effective application on more localized or close regional levels. Hopefully, through time and wider implementation of SaR Kit across different countries, its transport will present less of an impediment.

The other challenge that currently undermines the effective deployment of the SaR Kit is air transport regulations on lithium-ion batteries. These regulations, although primarily developed with safety reasons in mind, provide a tight regulatory system, especially recalling the fact that drones operating on lithium-ion batteries are allowed on a passenger aircraft only if their batteries do not exceed 5 kg net battery weight, while on a cargo aircraft no more than 35 kg net battery weight.

However, in the wake of an undergoing disaster in a distant place, it becomes problematic if the help response is delayed due to the non-availability of an adequate aircraft that can carry SaR drones that have slightly higher net battery weight from the provided limitations. This raises questions about whether the regulations should factor in possibilities for exceptions of the rules that can be justified on the urgency of a situation. Indeed, as new technologies are successfully implemented in different fields, a discussion needs to be had about how we can rethink air transport regulations in a way that foster safe, adequate and effective inclusion of new technologies.

On the other hand, new technological developments continuously provide smart and improved solutions that don’t require strong regulatory shifts. A clear example of this is the development of new processing chips that are made smaller, lighter, but more powerful. In the same fashion, it can also be expected that in the future similar development will be seen with power batteries, whether still reliant on lithium-ion or not. In consequence, such development would not necessitate strong regulatory changes.

Future potential

To overcome the challenges associated with transporting SaR drones powered by lithium-ion batteries, further tech resources and knowledge dissemination to different first responders is needed. However, a regulatory discussion that constructively considers current impediments and proposed solutions should also be considered. Bearing in mind the undeniable benefits of allowing SaR drones to be easily and rapidly transported to unexpected crises, a greater focus should be placed on setting aside avertible hurdles and investing in the implementation of more SaR Kits around Europe.

Trilateral Research offers expertise in these topics and looks forward to joining forces with partners in exploring these areas in research, policy or education projects.

For more information, please contact our team.

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