Drones: what are they and how are they supporting the services?


In this Learning Zone series, we explore in more detail the newest and most exciting technology on the horizon for the emergency services. In this issue, we’re looking at drones and their application in this environment. Stay tuned over the coming months for insights on augmented and virtual reality, driverless vehicles, robotics, smart cities and artificial intelligence.

The humble drone – how is it helping deliver an emergency response?

Although drone technology isn’t being used across all of the emergency services yet, we’re seeing an increase in its use with very positive results. This is mainly in surveillance, law-enforcement and search and rescue. It’s expected that further uses will be in surveying large or complex fires, road collisions and disaster response, as well as in the delivery of life-saving equipment and supplies.

In the UK, West Midlands Fire Service were the first to operationally deploy drones in 2007. Since then, the number of operational forces using or planning to use drones notably jumped to two thirds of fire services and half of police forces by 2016. This figure has continued to rise subsequently with recent deployments in Suffolk, Lincolnshire and West Yorkshire.

Moreover, according to recent reports, at least 65 people were rescued with support from drones last year. Indeed, a recent report by DJI – a global market-leader in drone technology – found that drones have been used to drop buoys to struggling swimmers, as well as identifying unconscious people in harsh weather conditions in the UK and America. They also found that drones had helped locate distressed persons needing help in rivers, mountains and fields.

Interestingly, this report was collected from a number of news outlets and public safety agencies and includes 27 separate incidents across five continents.


In addition to what’s already been deployed and in use, we’ve seen several high-profile drone trials and pilots for their further development. These have been taking place across the globe throughout the last 18 months. Let’s explore some of the most exciting examples below.

Defibrillator Delivery

In 2017, Swedish researchers tested drones and ambulances to determine which had the fastest response time in delivering an automated external defibrillator to a patient in cardiac arrest. These defibrillators give instructions to a bystander to use it for checking the heart rhythm and, if needed, to send an electric shock to the heart to restore a normal rhythm.

The researchers conducted 18 consecutive flights with the drone, with an average flight distance of 3.2 kilometres, or about 2 miles, comparing the dispatch and travel time of the drone with that of emergency medical services (EMS).

The researchers found that the drone arrived more quickly than EMS in all cases, with an average reduction in response time of about 16 minutes. Furthermore, no adverse events or technical problems occurred during any of the drone flights. During a medical emergency, those minutes can be the difference between life and death. This preliminary study was published in the journal JAMA in June 2017.

High-Rise Fires

Also in 2017, Latvian heavy-duty drone manufacturer Aerones Ltd., together with the fire and rescue team from Aizkraukle, conducted an experiment the world had never seen before. In this experiment, the “Aerones” drone was tested to fight possible fire accidents. The results proved that it is able to reach heights exceeding those of firefighter truck ladders, while the drone also has the capability to operate in hard to reach and dangerous spots.

Search and Rescue

In September of 2017, a number of companies held the world’s first demonstration of an air crash drone rescue at The Emergency Services Show at the NEC, Birmingham, UK. This video sets the scene for this ground-breaking demonstration, showing the art of the possible for future drone search and rescue.

In April 2018, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) and the Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA) also ran a special event to test the use of drones in a variety of real-life search and rescue scenarios, which you can watch here.

Operational Frameworks

In April 2018, the European Emergency Number Association (EENA) and the Chinese drone manufacturer DJI announced a new joint pilot project for using drones for emergency services in Europe. The project was announced at the EENA conference in Slovenia and will be the second partnership between EENA and DJI. For more information on the first phase of the EENA/DJI partnership, you can access a PDF version of the whitepaper here.

The goal of the second project, which will take place in Ireland and Wales, is to understand exactly how drones can be used by emergency services and create legal and operational framework — and to set Europe-wide standards to help more countries adopt emergency drones.

Setting the standards for drones in the UK

Aside from individual trials, there are initiatives taking place at higher levels. These include the Flying High Challenge, which is the first programme of its kind to convene city leaders, regulators, public services, and industry around the future of drones in UK cities.

Since February until June 2018, the Nesta Flying High team are working together with Bradford, London, Preston, Southampton and the West Midlands to develop a single vision for drone systems based on local community needs and ambitions.

Flying High will explore specific drone use cases within cities and hazardous environments and address key technology, infrastructure, regulatory, safety and privacy complexities. The teams will create detailed technical and economic plans that unlock market opportunity through regulatory testbeds, open innovation technology challenges and live, real-world demonstrations. The subsequent phases of the Flying High, through to 2020, will ultimately test drone applications in the partner cities.

We await with interest to read the results of this work later in 2018.

What’s next?

There’s no doubt that drone technology is already adding value to the emergency services and is helping to save lives. It is also clear that drone technology is evolving rapidly for military, commercial and public use, and not only for the emergency services.

Shared learning across the services is crucial in defining operational best-practice for the use of drones going forward. Tangible measurement of their uses and successes will also help develop blueprints for future deployments and development of technology roadmaps for rural, urban and coastal use.

We’ll be watching these developments with great interest and will keep you posted in due course.


  1. Flying High Challenge
  2. European Emergency Number Association
  3. DJI
  4. JAMA Network

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We develop innovative communications software for emergency and critical control rooms in the public and private sectors. Our solutions deliver critical communications across the transportation sector, multiple international airports and major transportation hubs, as well as supporting police and fire services' control rooms.

From our base in the UK, we serve customers across Europe and the UAE and we're proud to say that one in two UK police forces are using our technology today.

As part of our commitment to innovation, we’re publishing articles about various future technology trends over the coming months. These include:

  • Augmented and virtual reality
  • Driverless vehicles
  • Robotics
  • Smart cities
  • Artificial intelligence

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