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Drones are being used by Scottish mountain rescue teams

As technology improves, drones may play an increasingly important role in searches across tricky terrain.

Searches for injured and missing climbers lost on hazardous terrain across the Highlands have begun using sophisticated drones operated by Scotland's mountain rescue teams.

Rescuers can use the drones, which weigh just under a kilo, to search inaccessible gullies and remote areas quickly and safely. They can be equipped with torches, heat-detecting cameras, loudspeakers and even radio handsets.

Over the last year, the technology has been quickly adopted by Scotland's 28 volunteer rescue teams, who have used it to help find casualties and missing people on Ben Nevis, the southern uplands, and in Fife and the Trossachs.

Drone experts predict that the devices will soon be used as emergency mobile phone masts that provide coverage in mountains, on moors, and along remote coasts, allowing rescue teams to detect missing walkers' signals, or link up rescuers in mobile dead zones.

A charity that trains drone pilots, Search and Rescue Aerial Association Scotland (Saraa), founded by Tom Nash, believes the technology has the potential to transform rescues and search operations. The 24 Scottish Mountain Rescue teams responded to 671 calls in 2020.

A former navigator for the Royal Air Force Tornado, Nash now operates commercial drones for eight rescue teams in Scotland. Since 2015, he has helped train 15 volunteers to become qualified drone pilots.

In 2020, Saraa had four drone support requests; in 2021, that number jumps to 15. Glen Coe and Lochaber have separate equipment for their rescue teams.

Drones cannot be used in rain, snow, or fog, according to Nash and Stevenson. There are legal height restrictions and they are limited currently to line of sight, meaning a pilot has to be able to see the craft.

When a search and rescue helicopter is involved, rescue teams also keep their drones on the ground. Using the Lochaber, rescue coordinators can study the footage at their base while the helicopters conduct systematic searches across the hillside.

“They’re terrific. You can get a bird’s eye view of where you are,” said Stevenson. French rescue teams had used them on Alpine ski slopes, which his team had seen.

Nash said their roles could expand as pilots’ skills and technology improve. Nash said they could copy the communications firm OpenReach, which uses drones fitted with 4G phone equipment to “drape” mobile coverage over a large area when phone masts are out of action. In time, drones could be able to deliver supplies and equipment to casualties or rescue teams in difficult terrain.

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