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DRONES: ARCTIC SEARCH AND RESCUE
By Gillian Ward
Canada is unique among the circumpolar nations, with dozens of channels and inlets to monitor, increasingly subject to dynamic ice conditions. The Canadian Coast Guard is challenged to provide services to a significantly longer perimeter than the total shoreline of the Arctic Coastguard Forum nations combined. With precious little fuel and spare resources on hand in most remote Arctic communities, Search and Rescue (SAR) operations are particularly challenging.
In the last five years, over 500 search and rescue (SAR) missions have been undertaken in Canada's Arctic region, including aeronautical, marine and humanitarian incidents, as reported by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) Coast Guard.
When a call comes in for SAR, air support is dispatched from Joint Rescue Coordination Centres (JRCC) based in the south, a five to six hour flight from the search zone. With hypothermia claiming its victims swiftly in the Arctic, thermal imaging is effective for a mere twelve hours or less before the lost become as cold as the environment around them. Rapid response is absolutely critical.
The Coast Guard established a permanent Arctic sea base in Rankin Inlet in 2018, the only one of Arctic Forum Nations to do so. SAR relies on the Coast Guard Auxiliary for marine SAR missions, with 16 bases in the Arctic and growing. Currently at 4000 volunteer personnel and 1100 watercraft, the Auxiliary is a vitally important part of the SAR infrastructure.
"Every search and rescue mission is unique", says Peter Garapick, Superintendent of Arctic Search and Rescue. In each situation, weather conditions and topography details must be acquired, assessed and the rescue effort planned accordingly. Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) heavy hitter, "Hercules" (C130 aircraft) is most often dispatched for search operations, as it is capable of relatively low and slow flight, carrying paratroopers trained in emergency first aid, to be dropped off to stabilize the injured. As the Herc may not be able to land and take off again in the field, a helicopter is often required to get in and perform the rescue, airlifting the victims to safety or medical facilities.
In spite of the risk, hardy Arctic folks set out on days long hunting, fishing and visiting trips, often alone, with snow machines or dog sleds. Breakdowns happen, accidents happen, GPS is not always to be relied upon and the shorelines have changed so much over the decades that maps are outdated and ineffective. Two ship wrecks in the remote north in the last decade have underscored the need for more resources and faster response time.
Enter Air Marine Reconnaissance (AMR), with drone technology. John Landry is a retired CH149 Cormorant pilot, SAR Mission Controller and former Deputy Commander of the JRCC. He knows first hand what it takes to accomplish a successful search and rescue operation in the far north. AMR and its partners in Surveying and Geomatics have begun the extensive work of grid-mapping parts of the remote Arctic shoreline, collecting data points, the basic infrastructure underpinning future drone search and rescue capabilities.
Landry says once you have experienced the Arctic, you cannot help but care about what happens here, the people, the animals, the ice, the sea and the land itself have a way of capturing hearts and minds. The key to successful emergency response is in equipping the communities with local resources that can be deployed swiftly by trained personnel in each community. Landry and his team invested fifty hours of flight time to establish their project, consulting with key personalities in the Arctic, hearing about what sort of assistance is needed. Landry says he has been amazed by the local response programs, motivating AMR to find ways to get the drones placed into all of the communities, if the funding can be found.
Attached to any SAR mission, whether aeronautical, marine or humanitarian, is an unknown financial commitment to preserve human life. If approximate locations are unknown, the rescue cost can be extreme. At $14,000 per hour to operate the C130 Hercules aircraft, a conventional search and rescue is astronomical. Beyond the financial cost, risk to the lives of the search teams is a factor that cannot be translated into a dollar value.
A fixed wing drone, programmed to fly a grid route beyond visual line of site, staying airborne for up to 24 hours can save financial resources and save lives. Just like search aircraft, the drone can be equipped with thermal imaging devices, audio transmitter/receivers and even emergency supplies payloads. Real-time images can be streamed to mission control where the GPS and band width for data transmission are adequate. Experienced search personnel at mission control can conduct the search from a safe and secure location, taking hours off the SAR timelines and improving likelihood of survival.
Drone technology is being embraced for SAR at the highest levels. "I'm really excited about the technology. It's the future", says Garapick. Partnerships between the existing SAR infrastructure and all levels of government, the local community organizations, the volunteer forces and drone technology are expected to culminate in improved SAR outcomes, enhancing public safety in the remote north. The anticipation of such improvement has Garapick thinking he might just stay on past his planned retirement window. Even so, the new personnel coming up the ranks are dedicated and enthusiastic for moving Arctic SAR ahead, and many of the department's staff are Arctic residents, a very good scenario for future success.
Landry says a great deal of mapping work and basic infrastructure supporting drone flight must be developed before we see Arctic SAR with drone support. The orthomosaic images created from hundreds of snapshots must be completed before the drones can get to work effectively. The further north you go, the more unreliable GPS and band width become, so increased satellite support and data transmitters need to be placed. Once the base infrastructure has been laid down, and protocols defined for drones working beyond visual line of sight, drones could be assisting in SAR missions.
In due time, every community could have a search drone, ready to go to work at a moments notice, making the Arctic a safer place for everyone. Until then, Peter Garapick still advises Arctic residents that 'the best way to get involved is to join a chapter of the Arctic Coast Guard Auxiliary".
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