Drones hovering over the peaks of Snowdonia, providing a mobile aerial network in remote areas, may soon become a feature of the region’s mountain rescue operations.
Drones – like small unmanned gliders but with two engines – would carry equipment that provides 4G and 5G connectivity that would connect mountain rescue teams and other emergency services with people stranded, lost or injured in remote hills where cell phone signal is often. irregular or non-existent.
Mobile drone support could allow rescuers to pinpoint the location of a lost walker and guide it down a mountain, or connect a doctor with someone trying to help a seriously injured person. Walkers and rescuers could also share pictures or communicate via video, providing more detailed information about those in distress.
A prototype of the “Dragon” drone, which has a wingspan of around seven meters, was built by the Snowdonia Aerospace Center and successfully tested on flights from Llanbedr airport to Gwynedd. The plan is to conduct trials with first responders and emergency services next year.
David Owens, head of technical testing at Virgin Media O2, which is developing the air network system, said it was a first for the UK. “National parks don’t have fabulous coverage due to the nature of the terrain and you don’t want areas of outstanding natural beauty covered with cell phone antennas. It means there are many constraints on what we can do.
“We wondered if we could put together something that would allow us to provide coverage by flying a network in these areas on a drone.”
The Dragon drone would be able to circle – or “linger” – for four or five hours over a mountain and there are plans to find ways to extend the flight time to more than 12 hours.
Owens said the system could also be used in maritime rescue, for example to communicate with paddleboarders or offshore swimmers.
Mountain rescue teams responded to a record 3,629 calls in England and Wales in 2021, nearly 1,000 more than the annual average before the Covid pandemic.
New research from Virgin Media O2 shows that 63% of Brits have visited at least one UK national park in the past year. However, getting lost (35%), injured (33%) and not being able to contact anyone (31%) were some of the main concerns of people considering a walking holiday.
Sergeant Paul Terry of the North Wales Police Drone Unit, who is also a member of Ogwen Valley Mountain Rescue, said the drone system could be a “game changer”.
In addition to connecting rescuers with hikers or climbers, it would help connect various rescuers, who could be particularly useful in complex operations such as the one following a helicopter crash in Snowdonia in 2017, when five people died.
Terry said Ogwen Valley Mountain Rescue typically deals with about 160 accidents a year and has been called 140 times this year. A neighboring team, the Llanberis Mountain Rescue, is called about 200 times a year. “We saw an explosion of people in the mountains,” Terry said. And people tend to head to riskier places, with social media making spectacular but potentially dangerous areas more popular like Snowdon’s Crib Goch Ridge Walk.
Terry said he often encountered people navigating their smartphones using maps that didn’t provide enough detail, and he believes cell phones can give inexperienced walkers a false sense of security. “They didn’t consider that if they need it later it may not be loaded or they won’t have a signal.
“With more and more people visiting Snowdonia every year, a drone with mobile connectivity would be a powerful tool for search and rescue teams to immediately understand and assess a situation, saving crucial time in life-threatening situations.”
Welsh Economy Minister Vaughan Gething said: “Connectivity is the foundation of our digital world. It brings us all closer and is especially important in security situations. I am delighted to support this innovative project, which further demonstrates how technology can help us solve problems and improve our lives. “
The project was funded by the Innovate UK Future Flight challenge and a research and innovation grant for drone technology from the Department of Transport. It also involves SwiftFlight Avionics, Wavemobile and the Welsh government.