Drones Help Scottish Rescuers Search for Victims Lost in Tough Terrain

The next time you hear the high-pitched whine of a drone cut the alpine silence, it may not be because an influencer is hunting down video content.

In Scotland, mountain rescue teams have implemented drones to make their jobs, and the mountains at large, safer. The machines can already help search for missing or injured people in remote, hard-to-access locations. Drone experts see their mountain utility expanding, thanks to the wide range of tools and technology they can carry.

ExplorersWeb has called drones “game changers” for mountain rescue. In those applications, they work fairly intuitively. Most elementarily, a drone pilot on the ground can help rescuers suss out the situation from below with the unit’s onboard camera. Operators can also fit drones with various gadgets like lights, speakers, and even radio handsets.

Experts say the technology has helped rescue teams access terrain previously thought too dangerous for ingress. So far, Scotland’s 28 volunteer search-and-rescue teams have all adopted the technology. Rescuers implemented drones on Ben Nevis, the southern uplands, Fife, and the Trossachs over the last year.

drone in the mountains

Drones in mountain rescue: how it works

John Stevenson leads a rescue team for Lochaber mountain rescue in Fort William, which covers Ben Nevis. The group currently employs four drones. Their most critical advantage is in scouting.

“The drones are definitely an asset; there’s no doubt about it,” Stevenson told The Guardian. “We’re putting drones into places where years ago, we might have thought twice about putting people in.”

The Lochaber unit has also found that drones can sweep terrain faster than humans can during searches for missing persons. Tom Nash, a former RAF Tornado navigator, founded the Search and Rescue Aerial Association of Scotland and has trained rescuers to pilot drones across the country. He explained further:

Risk reduction is a key use of a drone. Previously, where someone has needed to do a rope rescue or a stretcher lift, you would have some poor person dangling over the edge of a cliff, roped back, peering over saying ‘I think we should put the rope down here.’ Now, just put the drone 20 yards out the other side of the cliff and look back, [and] you can see where the casualty is. You can floodlight that at night. We can put a speaker on, and if we know it’s going to be a while, we can speak to the casualty and say help is on the way, ‘give us a thumbs up if you’re OK but can’t move.’ That’s a really critical use.

Nash looks for drones’ roles on rescue crews to keep expanding as pilots’ skills and available technology advance. In the future, he said they could potentially “drape” 4G mobile phone coverage over areas where phone masts are knocked out or don’t exist. Eventually, drones could even deliver supplies and equipment to rescue sites.

“It’s so exciting because it can and will revolutionize things,” he said.