Govt deploys drones to help with mountain rescue operations – a first for SA
- After waiting for more than a year, the Western Cape government has eventually received drone operating licences.
- These remotely piloted aircraft systems will assist search and rescue operations on Table Mountain and surrounds.
- In time, firefighters and police are also expected to benefit from the City’s drone programme.
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A fleet of drones has been enlisted to assist emergency medical services (EMS) in rescue and reconnaissance operations in Cape Town. On 15 December, the Western Cape’s department of health launched the EMS Drone Rescue Project, becoming the first government institution in South Africa licensed to fly above national keypoints.
Registered drone pilots, employed by the city’s EMS services, will be deployed to mountainous regions to support search and rescue missions. As part of a phased rollout, drones will first be used to monitor Table Mountain. In 2020, several hikers have required urgent assistance while struggling to traverse the mountain’s routes, with prolonged searches resulting in the recovery of two bodies in July and October.
The introduction of drone technology, which will be used to search remote sections of the mountain while feeding live imagery back to primary response teams, will hasten vital rescue operations and reduce the immediate risks faced by EMS personnel.
"We are the first state-owned licensed operator, and we would like to see this grow to other rescue services and parts of the city as well,” noted EMS director Shaheem de Vries, who added that deploying drones in high-risk situations would allow responders to formalise a safer rescue plan before wading in.
But Cape Town’s drone project will not be limited to mountain search and rescue operations.
With the Mother City’s infamous fire season fast approaching, EMS Flight Operations Manager, Fabian Higgins, confirmed that these drones would be used to identify flare-ups through thermal imaging cameras. Early assessments of heat signatures, particularly in hard-to-reach mountainous areas, will allow firefighting services to respond and contain any flames before they are fanned by the region’s gale force winds.
A total of 15 drones were purchased in 2019, but, due to stringent restrictions concerning remotely piloted aircraft systems, compliance with the SA Civil Aviation Authority’s licensing regulations took longer than expected. According to the City of Cape Town’s director for safety and security, Richard Bosman, the cost of drone equipment purchased to assist with operations totalled R500,000.
The City’s original plan included incorporating drones into crime-fighting efforts, with officials pointing to the recent violent spate of muggings in and around Table Mountain National Park.
Once fully developed, the drones will also be used to assist with sea rescue operations, according to Wilderness Search and Rescue’s incident commander Roy van Schoor.
(Compiled by Luke Daniel)
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