Home > SAR, UAVs > UAVs in SAR – Deployment and Effectiveness

UAVs in SAR – Deployment and Effectiveness

In an earlier post I wrote: “I think the search & rescue community should do a lot more work on designing and performing experiments with UAVs. Vendors and sales outlets keep touting their UAVs as being “good for search & rescue” without providing any data to support this claim, and often without really understanding SAR, SAR missions, and the challenges we face. (More on this in my upcoming presentation for NAASIC in Reno in September.)”

This is even more important when we consider what are appropriate missions for UAVs and how to deploy them.

I conducted two very quick experiments to illustrate two of the challenges we face. I intend to develop more formal experiments and welcome others who are interested in assisting with this effort.


I wanted to answer two questions:

  1. How effective is a UAV when searching an area with trees?
  2. How effective is a UAV when searching for clues in a soybean field?

Both of these are simple examples of SAR problems you can adapt to your own operational area.

tl;dr – You need to be down very low when searching near trees and finding an unresponsive subject in a soybean field with an optical sensor is very tough.

Searching Near Trees:

If this was your search area, and if you were searching for an uncooperative or unresponsive subject (someone who isn’t going to come investigate the noise of the UAV), how would you plan your mission? How would you execute it? How long would it take? How effective would you be? (This was taken at 200 feet by a Phantom Vision 2+. The subject is currently in the frame.)

PV2+ 200 feet

Ok, if the subject were standing under a tree in this small area, what would you be able to see? (There are a lot of variables here – height of branches, folliage on or off, distance from subject, subject’s distance from the trunk, …. This is just an example.)

Distance from the UAV to the subject was less than 50 feet in all images.

At the subject’s altitude:


At about a 30 degree angle:


50 degrees. The subject’s legs are barely visible due to the contrast between his blue jeans and the green background. (And, if you were looking at this on a mobile device, what would you really be able to see?)


70 degrees or so. The subject is not visible.


Conclusion – you need to get under the level of the tree branches to search around trees for an unresponsive subject. This will increase your time required to search while diminishing your ability to control the UAV at long ranges.


I live, and search, in Illinois. Lots of corn, lots of soybeans. Searching for anyone in a corn field when the corn is above your head is tough. We’ll come back to that one later. Soybeans get to a few feet tall. Walking through soybean fields is … annoying … but you can certainly see a lot more. If the subject is standing up you can just walk to the edge of the field and say “Hey, there they are!” But, what if they are unresponsive and down?

Again, 50 feet up with a DJI Phantom Vision 2+. The subject dropped their high visibility orange shirt, a clue! We can see it easily on the edge of the field.


But, what if they dropped it in the field? Since you know it is in the frame, and since it is right next to the pilot, you can probably see it. If you were looking at images from 100 acres of soybeans how confident are you that you’d see this clue, particularly on a small screen?



If you are using a normal consumer UAV to search for an unresponsive subject in an area with significant vegetation your probability of detection may be rather low.

Categories: SAR, UAVs Tags: ,
  1. Christopher Taylor
    August 23, 2015 at 1:25 pm

    How much would IR increase the effectiveness? Something like the FLIR One is only $149, so it is an approachable cost to add to the platform. There might be better cameras, that is just the one that came to mind first.




    • August 23, 2015 at 1:30 pm

      Good question, and someone else pointed me to this video which helps answer the question:

      I will note that:

      The subject was the only target in the area
      They were not in the tree line
      The temperature differential was 60+ degrees.

      Pretty optimal detection conditions. That said, yes, I’d love to have one of these available.

    • August 23, 2015 at 5:00 pm

      Absolutely agreed, but adding those sensors and then upgrading the aircraft to lift and operate all three sensors will add significantly to the cost.

  2. August 23, 2015 at 4:58 pm

    You need to add a thermal camera and a IR camera, Drones alone with the proper sensors are not going to perform well

  3. August 23, 2015 at 5:55 pm

    We fly the new FLIR Vue thermal camera. Video review coming soon at http://www.youtube.com/akrcguy

  4. November 24, 2015 at 8:23 am

    Keep in mind the IR and thermal imaging is not X-RAY vision. Light, even light emitted in the infraRed region of the electromagnetic spectrum still needs to travel unimpeded from the source (subject) to the receiver (camera). IR does not penetrate vegetation like very low frequency spectra (long wavelength radio radios) or high frequency spectra (X-Ray, Gamma Ray, etc). The slight advantage IR has to visible spectra is that the IR radiates slightly further than the visible spectra so the IR (thermal) could appear as a halo around the radiating object depending on the temperature difference between the source and environment.

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