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Call for IMO Action on UAV Use

UAV control

Published Jul 3, 2015 8:07 PM by Wendy Laursen

The IMO and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) should encourage cooperation between governments, research centers and companies to develop unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for search and rescue use, says Captain Abdelkhalik Kamal Eldin Soliman Selmy, a lecturer in the nautical department of the Arab Academy for Science and Technology and Maritime Transport in Egypt.

The most important success factors for search and rescue (SAR) operations are related to time – the ability to prevent drowning and hypothermia through quick response to distress signals and the ability of rescuers to collect accident data to assess the situation and plan their response, says Selmy.

Selmy was speaking at the World Maritime Rescue Congress in Bremerhaven, Germany, in June. The congress was organized by the International Maritime Rescue Federation (IMRF), a UK based charity.

The use of UAVs could support the planning, handling, monitoring and tracking of SAR operations, could light the sea at night, drop rescue equipment to survivors and even monitor the body temperature of survivors at sea using thermal cameras, he says.

“The information collected and the initial action taken are often critical to successful SAR operations,” says Selmy. “It must be assumed that in each incident there are survivors who will need assistance and whose chances of survival are reduced by the passage of time. The success of a SAR operation depends on the speed with which the operation is planned and carried out.

“The chances of survival for injured people decrease by as much as 80 percent during the first 24 hours, and those of uninjured people diminish rapidly after the first three days.”

Many UAVs are already in use, but Selmy says SAR operations have specific requirements. A number of different configurations could be beneficial. For example, small fixed wing UAVs could be used as a first response to take-off quickly and collect information. Larger systems could drop rescue equipment to survivors and execute search patterns to help locate missing people over a large area. They could also be used in mass rescue operation and marine accident investigations.

The UAVs could carry varied payloads including sensors such as radar, high and low resolution video cameras, electro-optical sensing systems, infra-red scanners and navigation sensors.

They could drop payloads such as marine location markers including smoke markers, life vests, medical supplies, emergency location transmitters and food. They could also drop rescue hoists.

Selmy believes that merchant ships could also benefit from having one on board. “Unmanned aerial systems could be used on board ship instead of traditional tools such as man overboard buoys, as they have the added ability to monitor, trace and drop a lifebuoy, buoyant smoke or waterproof mobile communication VHF very quickly and with high accuracy using GPS,” he says.

The civilian uses of UAVs are still relatively primitive compared to military uses due to a security problems and privacy, says Selmy. “The role of the United Nations, through the IMO and ICAO, is to enact a convention and regulations covering issues such as safety, payloads, navigation, recovery, sense and avoidance and control technologies and also operator training and certification.”

IMO could facilitate research and establish global standards, he says, and provide budgets and support for development projects.