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Military Spin

By By Lt. Col. Steve Colby | December 1, 2006
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SEARCH AND RESCUE IS A DIFFICULT mission that is complicated by the fact that we generally operate in reactive mode to emergencies and disasters. You’re probably wondering what an unmanned aerial system has to do with SAR. Unmanned systems are a force multiplier for SAR, period, and here’s how.

Historically a survivor’s probability of survival (Ps) diminishes over time, and quickly. Recovery within the first hour of injury or isolation provides the greatest survivor viability. An unmanned system helps by giving rescue-mission managers and rescue crews unprecedented capabilities that improve recovery times by providing persistent situational awareness, remarkable sensor arrays, radio relay, real-time video feeds of the pick-up area, laser designation for survivor location or communications.

Many types of unmanned systems provide this persistent coverage, but for this article we’ll focus on the MQ-1 Predator.


The Predator’s ability to loiter for long periods of time provides rescue forces with persistent and sometimes overlapping surveillance coverage. During Hurricane Katrina, for example, Predators were used to help locate survivors on rooftops using forward-looking infrared (flir) and electro-optical (EO) sensors and pass those coordinates back to the operations center. When confronted with a mass disaster, planners must remember to request this support because it’s still not a fluent term in rescue-planning vernacular. The MQ-1’s relatively slow cruise speeds (80 kt ground speed) mean that moving it to more distant isolated-personnel locations from its planned orbit can consume significant time.

The MQ-1 has demonstrated that it can provide remarkable on-orbit radio-relay capability, enabling communications that otherwise are restricted to line of sight. The ability of an unmanned system to find, fix and forward survivor locations and disseminate that data quickly to rescue forces speeds recovery operations by tying the sensor to the recovery platform. Accurate and timely location and condition reporting, allows rescue crews to rapidly evaluate terrain and weather in mission planning for the recovery.

Once the Predator locates the survivor, it can be maneuvered to an orbit to survey the area for the survivor. During Katrina, FEMA developed rooftop signals to minimize duplicated search efforts. Those signals can rapidly be scanned by unmanned-system operators. Survivor coordinates can be confirmed, refined, and passed to the operations center or directly to rescue helicopters through data links or voice transmission. These are duties customarily associated with initial on-scene command. I say that if the platform has the comm, fuel, and location/ID capability, it should be the initial on-scene command. The MQ-1 has the unique connectivity to allow parallel processing of data via line-of-sight radio comm from the aircraft to other support aircraft in the immediate vicinity, allowing hand off of on-scene command as those support aircraft arrive. It also has the ability to push data from the ground station to key decision-makers in the operations center through Internet chat connectivity and other links.

The communication suite in the Predator allows comm on UHF, VHF-AM and VHF-FM. While direct comm with personnel below it is accomplished via the UHF, VHF or FM radios, the video and communication link back to the Predator ground station is via Ku-band satellite link. When working with military missions, the Predator can forward Quickdraw (audible data burst over voice radios) survivor location and condition data to arriving recovery helicopters, speeding into action those forces by minimizing coordinate transposition errors induced with voice comm.

The sensor array in the MQ-1 provides remarkably clear, magnified, digitally-scanned flir images that are available in eight different fields of view (magnification) and seven views in EO low-light TV. In certain configurations, synthetic aperture radar is installed. These high-tech imaging packages provide MQ-1 crews and others with direct video-feed capability. As rescue/recovery aircraft approach, the Predator can survey potentially suitable landing areas and inform rescue crews of the landing zone nearest the survivor. Recovery vehicles equipped to receive streaming video can display this stream directly, further building their situational awareness.

First-responder planners must add this military capability to their bag of tricks when requesting military support for civilian rescue operations. All services employ unmanned systems in one form or another. Development of the rescue-operations plan should include contacting the services directly for information about unmanned system bases, locations, capabilities and support-request processes. That information should be kept updated with periodic reviews.

I hope this quick tutorial gives readers a picture of unmanned systems’ capabilities in loiter, connectivity, sensors, and video feeds and how they can aid survivor recovery by speeding into action recovery forces and increase survivor viability.

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