DroneSAR wants to turn drones into search-and-rescue heroes

12 Jun 2017

From left: Matthew Kelly and Oisin McGrath from DroneSAR; DJI’s director of education, Romeo Durscher; and Gearóid Ó Briain, DroneSAR. Image: DroneSAR

Our start-up of the week is Donegal-based DroneSAR, which has developed unique software that it claims will revolutionise the worldwide search-and-rescue industry.

So, what is DroneSAR? “It is an app that transforms basic commercially available drones into advanced search-and-rescue [SAR] platforms,” explained Oisin McGrath, CEO of DroneSAR.

McGrath said the app allows users to choose an aerial search pattern based on a range of variables.“This results in reduced search time, reduced costs and reduced risk to personnel.”

‘Our aim is to save lives. Our software will reduce risk to search teams, and reduce search time. If we can save just one life, that is mission success for us at DroneSAR’

He explained that DroneSAR has the capability to stream live images and video from the drone as it conducts its search to the command and control unit of the agency.

“A number of extra functions are provided where the victim location can be instantaneously shared with the ground search teams. Images of the victim and location, together with GPS coordinates, are sent via SMS or email as the drone loiters above.

“Completed search patterns are all recorded and logged for easy handover of search areas to oncoming rescue crews. A live stream function allows management to remotely track the drone patterns … and view live camera feed from any computer browser.”

The market

According to McGrath, DroneSAR’s target market area includes all denominations of terrain, coastal and inland waterway-based emergency response services, for which drone deployment would seek to expedite response speed and situation awareness, leading to mission success.

“DroneSAR has already established key partnership associations with leading organisations in drone manufacturing, crisis management and route planning/tracking software development.

“The first-of-its-kind software was developed based on research done by DJI in conjunction with the European Emergency Number Association [EENA] and Ireland’s Donegal Mountain Search and Rescue Team.

“The groups found that while a five-person rescue team on foot needs an average of two hours to find a victim in one square kilometre, a drone can do the job in 20 minutes or less, while taking additional active steps to achieve a successful rescue.”

The founders

DroneSAR was established as a direct result of the collaborative input of four individuals who each possess expertise and skill sets that are specific to the world of drone technology, network and satellite communication, and SAR coordination and emergency response.

“Each member of the team has contributed proportionally to realise a software product that will play a major part in ensuring that emergency response timeframes, incident coordination, decisions and successful outcomes will be realised across all sectors of the emergency response and humanitarian relief environment,” explained McGrath.

McGrath himself is a military helicopter instructor and examiner. He has a degree in aeronautical engineering and a passion for unmanned aircraft technology. He is co-founder of FlyRyte Drone Academy, Ireland’s leading unmanned aircraft training centre, and a certified military and civilian RPAS instructor.

Co-founder and CTO Matthew Kelly is an award-winning app designer and has developed a number of app solutions that directly integrate with drone technology. He is qualified in electronics engineering and also in network and satellite communications. Kelly was a successful participant in both stages of Enterprise Ireland’s New Frontiers Entrepreneur Development Programme 2015.

Co-founder and director of sales and marketing, Gearóid Ó Briain, is a military flight instructor and a qualified crew resource management instructor. He is also co-founder of FlyRyte Drone Academy and a certified military and civilian RPAS instructor and examiner. With a background in fixed-wing operations, Ó Briain has a degree in business and aviation management, and a diploma in psychology. He is pursuing an MBA at UCD Smurfit School.

Co-founder and director of R&D, Leo Murray, is an R&D engineer with the Contract Research Unit (CRU), specialising in new product and service development. He has been a member of one of the country’s busiest mountain rescue teams, DMRT, for 10 years, holding the position of deputy and team lead coordinator for the past six years. Murray led the testing phase of the European-based DJI and EENA collaborative project that focused on the application of drone technology for emergency response. He has an MSc in energy management and a BSc in project management.

The technology

DroneSAR wants to turn drones into search and rescue heroes

Image: DroneSAR

The app takes into account various types of terrain, allowing the drone to fly patterns to survey an area faster and more effectively. Flight paths can be adjusted, and various patterns can be selected for any terrain, including hills, mountains, trees or flat land.

The software enables users to choose an automatic, customised aerial search pattern, which is filled automatically, based on variables such as altitude, field of view, battery life and probability of detection.

McGrath said that by organising the process of data collection and providing a framework to manage and analyse it, DroneSAR ensures that drones can be used methodically as part of a rescue protocol, allowing personnel to work safely and effectively.

“From understanding on how to use the technology, to communicating findings and data, to figuring out the most appropriate tactical approach, first responders can benefit greatly from this software app on our DJI hardware,” explained Romeo Durscher, director of education at DJI.

“Many of the tasks and strategies deployed during a search-and-rescue operation can get sped up with automation, helping to reduce the time it takes to find a victim and save lives.”

A rescue platform for the world

DroneSAR wants to turn drones into search and rescue heroes

Image: DroneSAR

“Our ultimate goal is to provide the worldwide rescue market with the most functional rescue specific drone software,” McGrath said.

“With continual research and development, based on feedback from our customers, we aim to provide a robust and efficient solution for global rescue teams.

“Through a collaborative approach, we seek to identify new possibilities and solutions that will utilise space technologies such as navigation, communication, satellite, object detection and segmentation, augmented reality, GIS, and sensory systems, so that our app solution will successfully deliver when it is needed most.”

Flying high

DroneSAR has been widely well-received both nationally and internationally since its launch in November 2016.

“Our growth strategy will focus on serving the global market, whilst at the same time evolving the apps functionalities to perform in tandem with other key SAR software solution providers. Exposure to worldwide emergency response agencies affiliated to these partnering companies will help expedite DroneSAR’s presence in the drone software environment.

“Our constant feedback, ideas and development allow our team to produce the most specific app for rescue teams based on what they require. Continual product development will allow us maintain our positions as global leaders in this field.”

Turbulent challenges

McGrath outlined some of the common challenges of using drones in aerial searches.

The first big challenge is training, skills and experience. “As these machines are GPS-enabled, and have auto take-off and auto-land functions, the motor skill required to operate them is negligible. They can be removed from the box and flown in 30 minutes. As a result, the machines can give the perception of flying skill, which will only become an issue when the flying area or search to be completed gets difficult. Training is paramount, which will include full understanding of the regulatory environment and technical aspects of the machines.”

DroneSAR wants to turn drones into search and rescue heroes

Image: DroneSAR

Another big challenge is field of view. “As we look around day-to-day, we have an approx field of view of 180 to 210 degrees. This makes ground search very easy, with 360 view by turning one’s head. Due to the cameras aboard, these machines, and the live feed to the operator, the field of view is severely reduced. The normal range is from 78 to 94 degrees, which can cause issues when searching.

“With a visible horizon, determining the drone’s direction and location is not difficult, but, as we search with a camera tilt angle of 60 degrees down, trying to determine the drone location can be difficult.”

And this is where drones come in handy. However, drones will only do what they are told to do.

“As ground-based teams become airborne, it is extremely likely that ‘random’ search patterns will be conducted. It is very easy [to] fly the drone in random patterns, which will leave some areas eliminated from the area to be covered. A much more regulated search pattern must be used in order that we cover the required area with no areas missing.”

A key aspect is the ability to share location data with rescue teams in real time.

“As we search, we must have a plan as to what will happen once we arrive overhead the victim,” McGrath explained.

“Drones are not capable of conducting a rescue, but again are very capable to ‘deliver’ a package with some essentials such as a radio, a hypothermic blanket etc. Another consideration is that we have to be able to share the drone location once the victim is found. The team members must be able to receive the location of the victim as quickly as possible, in order to concentrate resources on the rescue. Off-the-shelf drones do not have this capability without adding specialist software.”

The start-up scene in Ireland soars

McGrath said that the start-up environment in Ireland is both exhilarating and challenging.

“The start-up scene is one of the most exciting times I have had in my life. The constant drive [and] need for success, coupled with the recurring challenges, has pushed our team to places we had never thought possible.

“It is a huge learning curve, but we have quickly come to terms with where we want to be, and everyone is not afraid to put in the hard work on a consistent basis. We have had opportunities to speak at conferences, events and drone shows throughout the world that we attended for research purposes only two years ago. It has been an incredible journey so far and we all look forward to our continued international success.”

However, the key is to avoid hubris and focus on priorities.

“We entered the start-up world at a difficult time financially. Our advice would be to carefully select your team based on the skills they can bring to the company.

“Having the skills internally to allow you to expand with very little financial input at an early stage is absolutely necessary. Outsourcing early-development tasks is unnecessary and will not allow you to concentrate your limited finances on marketing.

“Take risks. Unfortunately, risks are a necessary part of any start-up. Try and avoid financial risks, but risk your spare time.

“Read as much as you can. Use your spare time – however limited – to develop new skills, meet partners, and for self development. Remember that if your company fails, you will always have these new skills and self-gained knowledge.

“Every now and again, stop … take a step back … and observe what you have achieved and take pleasure in it. Take it all in and enjoy the experience!”

Compiled with additional reporting by Laura-Louise Slattery

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