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by the NFCC

Control measure
Aerial resources: Drones for search

Control measure knowledge

The use of drones (classified as a type of unmanned aircraft by the Civil Aviation Authority) may be beneficial at a wide range of incidents.

Further information about the use of drones at multi-agency incidents is provided in the JESIP publication, Combined Tactical Air Cell (CTAC): The Management of Multi-Agency Air Assets.

Features and benefits of drones include:

  • A similar search capability support as a helicopter, depending on airframe type and equipment grade, but with:
    • Longer available on-scene time
    • Less noise
    • Less downdraft
  • Thermal imaging
  • Night vision
  • High-resolution zoom camera
  • An instant video downlink that can provide an overview to personnel, and has the potential for being displayed in command vehicles or fire control rooms
  • Allow information to be gathered from high-risk areas, without putting people at risk

If the use of drones could be beneficial for carrying out an effective search, they should be requested from the nearest and quickest source; this could be:

  • A fire and rescue service, including through mutual aid arrangements
  • National Resilience Fire Control (NRFC)
  • Police
  • Coastguard
  • Other emergency services
  • Voluntary search and rescue organisations, although they cannot fly them under the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) exemptions granted to the emergency services

It will be necessary to brief the drone operator about their task, objectives and any hazards identified. Communication between the incident ground and the drone operator will need to be established and maintained; it may be necessary to provide the drone operator with communications equipment to support this.

The information gathered by using drones should be used to:

  • Improve situational awareness
  • Assist with risk assessments
  • Inform search and tactical planning
  • Provide up-to-date information to operational and fire control personnel
  • Ensure personnel are available, ready and in the correct location to respond

Consideration should be given to the limitations of drones, such as the impact of weather conditions, and flight times being dependent on battery life.

Civil Aviation Authority compliance

All emergency services that operate drones must comply with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) guidance, CAP 722 - Unmanned Aircraft System Operations in UK Airspace. The guidance helps agencies developing drone operations to identify the route to certification and outlines the methods of obtaining permission for aerial work, thereby ensuring all relevant requirements are met.

The publication highlights the safety requirements that must be met before a drone can operate in the UK. By gaining permission for aerial work from the CAA, emergency services can operate in areas not normally permitted to drones, such as urban areas.

The CAA have published an exemption for the emergency services, Small Unmanned Aircraft - Emergency Services Operations. This exemption allows a more flexible, but still controlled, use of drones during an emergency operation, if an increased threat to life becomes apparent at short notice. It should not apply to longer-term planned or routine operations, when more detailed permission or exemption would be required. This exemption also allows emergency services to use drones for training in a controlled environment.

The publication provides up-to-date exemption details and information about the post-incident reporting that may be required by the CAA after a drone has been deployed under the emergency services exemption.

Strategic actions

Fire and rescue services should:
  • Establish arrangements with certified drone providers, and maintain a register of their search capability and how this can be requested

  • Consider providing the means for downlink data to be appropriately viewed at the incident and in fire control rooms

  • Consider improving and maintaining interoperability between aircraft providers or pilots, and fire and rescue personnel by organising co-operative training and joint multi-agency exercises
  • Ensure drones are deployed appropriately and in compliance with Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) guidance

Tactical actions

Incident commanders should:
  • Consider requesting drone resources to assist with a search incident

  • Use the information gathered through the use of drones when planning and to improve understanding of the situation for operational and fire control personnel

  • Consider providing communication equipment to the drone operator

  • Brief the drone operator of the required task and objectives, and details of hazards identified

  • Log details of when drones are used under the Civil Aviation Authority emergency services exemption

  • Ensure personnel are available, ready and in the correct location to respond to information gathered by the drone