In 2018 alone, Swiss Air Rescue (Rega) flew more than 17,000 missions and treated nearly 12,000 patients. Every year, hundreds of people get lost or disappear in Switzerland's sinuous alpine landscape.
A helicopter rescue team prepare to transport an injured patient in the Swiss Alps in 2018. All photos: REGA.
In most cases, emergency services use helicopters and search teams on land for search and rescue missions.
“In the last year alone, Rega searched for missing persons from the air on around 160 occasions because there was good reason to believe that a person needed help,” said REGA in a statement announcing its new drone on April 12th.
Helicopter teams can access rough terrains but the drone will be an additional aid in bad weather conditions and in accessing extremely remote areas.
A pilot with Swiss Air Rescue on a mission.
The new drone will change the way Swiss Air Rescue locates people in distress.
Rega's team began to explore the idea of incorporating drones into their work three years ago but couldn't find a commercial model that met its needs. Drones have already been used to monitor remote glaciers in Switzerland and Italy but the Swiss rescue team couldn't find a model that met their requirements.
Small but useful: Rega's new drone.
“A sufficiently small, lightweight and flexible UAV system capable of flying autonomously for several hours without being visible to operators does not currently exist on the market,” said air rescue service Rega in a statement on Friday April 12th.
Rega's drone has 2-metre diameter propeller. All photos: REGA.
So Rega designed and made their own, in partnership with the research institute ETH Zurich. The resulting tailor-made drone can fly at an altitude of 80-100 metres and survey vast areas of land. Various sensors on board can identify people in real time, using infrared, thermal and daylight cameras – which then feed a self-learning algorithm.
The images are then relaid to the team of drone operators. The drone can also track people using a mobile phone signal.
“This allows the Rega drone to locate a mobile phone in an uninhabited area from a distance of several hundred metres and thus most probably also find its owner,” reads a statement about by REGA.
Swiss Air Rescue emphasized however that the new drone is a “supplementary aid,” not a replacement for Switzerland's famous helicopter rescue service.
Rega's drone operating team in action.
“In certain cases, the drone will be a useful supplementary aid, but it will never completely replace the Rega helicopter and its crew. If the search for an ill or injured person proves successful, a Rega helicopter or other form of rescue will still be needed to recover the person or fly medical assistance to the site of the incident,” added REGA in its press release for the drone.