Drones to the rescue at WCape emergency services

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 15 Nov 2021

The Western Cape government’s Emergency Medical Services (EMS) drone project has helped save many lives since it launched 11 months ago.

This was the word from Fabian Higgins, leader of the EMS Drone Unit Flight Operations, calling the initiative a success.

Higgins provided an update on the province’s unmanned aerial vehicle project during the recent ‘Tech for good’ virtual event, hosted by aviation firms Flying Labs South Africa and We Robotics, in collaboration with drone business solutions provider QP Drone Tech.

In December 2020, the Western Cape became the first provincial government to be granted a Remote Operator Certificate for its drone initiative. The commercial drone licence is issued by the Civil Aviation Authority and is equal to an Aircraft Operator Certificate, used by commercial airlines.

Higgins noted that since inception, the project has deployed drones for various rescue missions and interventions, including road and rail accidents, search and rescue operations at sea and in mountains, explosions and structural collapses. They were also used to assist other government departments, including the South African Police Service, with inspections during major operations.

“In 11 months, the EMS Drone Unit has flown 63 total flights, 16 search and rescue flights, 28 missions and nine training missions.

“We’ve had several cases of explosions where we’d rather put a drone in an exploded building than risk a human life while searching for people. We are also constantly inundated with calls on drownings along the coastlines and also in-land.”

The Disaster Management Act 57 of 2002 provides for an intercepted, coordinated management policy that focuses on preventing or reducing the risk of disaster. This includes interventions that mitigate the severity of disasters and enable coordination of effective emergency response, or mitigation against potential disasters, he added.

During an emergency such as an explosion, drones offer the capability to quickly scan a large area, assess the situation and locate the hot spots on the ground, before sending first responders to the scene.

Higgins is a chief pilot and one of five pilots in the unit who operate both helicopters and drones, which are used during rescue operations the ambulance services may not be able to conduct.

The EMS is currently using one drone, the Matrice 200 series, which was imported from an international manufacturer. When used with infrared cameras, the drone can detect people in adverse and other low-visibility scenarios.

“We are in the process of buying more drones which will be distributed to the rural areas and we will be training more pilots. In the next few years, we plan to have 10 drones in the Western Cape, which will be used in the search and rescue missions.”

Looking to the future, the Western Cape EMS hopes to establish partnerships with drone specialist firms such as Flying Labs South Africa and We Robotics, to develop the infrastructure and tools in the same way they do overseas, added Higgins.

“Something we need to integrate urgently is the use of artificial intelligence tools to be able to immediately detect people in mountainous environments. We would also like to integrate live-streaming technology into our drone video devices, so that when we have a major disaster, we can fly over certain scenes and send the live footage to our control centre to pre-empt what will be required for a specific rescue mission.”