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Drone joins HM Coastguard air, land and sea rescue teams

HM Coastguard’s drone, helicopter and aeroplane assets undertaking their first formation flight in Wales (Credit: Ian Black, HM Coastguard, Bristow Helicopters, 2Excel Aviation)

HM Coastguard’s first operational drone flight will join manned helicopters, planes, boats and cliff rescue teams on lifesaving missions at sea and over land in North Wales for the first time, this summer.

The drone, initially trialled a year ago during the first easing of pandemic restrictions, will fly from the HM Coastguard helicopter base at Caernarfon, and will also participate in a series of major training exercises with other 999 teams.

HM Coastguard’s search and rescue helicopters and fixed-wing surveillance aircraft provide support in maritime, coastal and inland environments, including mountainous regions.

During a phase of operational integration training, the drone – operated by Bristow Helicopters Ltd – flew in formation alongside both the HM Coastguard S92 helicopter from Caernarfon (also operated by Bristow), and HM Coastguard’s King Air surveillance aircraft, operated by 2Excel Aviation.

Remotely piloted aircraft are expected to play a key role when UKSAR2G, the second-generation of search and rescue service, is due to begin operations in 2024.

Maritime and Aviation Minister, Robert Courts said: “Keeping people safe on the sea and around our coast will always be a priority, which is why we continue to explore new and cutting-edge ways to modernise search and rescue efforts.

“Drones have the potential to help our coastguard teams save even more lives and it is right we are working to advance these technologies here in the UK.”

Secretary of State for Wales, Simon Hart said: “We are hoping for a busy summer in the beautiful setting of North Wales and HM Coastguard plays a vital role in keeping local people and visitors to the area safe.

“It’s fantastic that this new and exciting technology is being rolled out in Wales first, flying alongside rescue teams and adding another layer to HM Coastguard’s search and rescue capability.”

Director of Her Majesty’s Coastguard, Claire Hughes said: “Summers on the coast are always busy and we will continue to use technology which could potentially save lives. When every minute saved can prove the difference between life and death, technology like this has a vital role to play in those moments alongside our helicopters, coastguard rescue teams and our partners from the RNLI to independent lifeboats and hovercraft.”

Neil Ebberson, Director UK Search and Rescue at Bristow, said: “Flying the Schiebel S-100 remotely piloted system alongside our manned aircraft from Caernarfon and the 2Excel surveillance aeroplane was a landmark for the HM Coastguard air search and rescue service.

“While we regularly train with both the 2Excel fixed wing crews and our Caernarfon based S92 crews, this was the first time the three aircraft types had operated and integrated in the same airspace.

“Participating in full-scale training exercises and integrating fully into rescue missions alongside HM Coastguard’s manned aircraft, vessels and vehicles will further prove the capability of the drone and extend the reach of the air rescue service.  This builds on the successful demonstration of operational capability when we delivered overwatch missions for HM Coastguard over the beaches and mountains of Wales during summer 2020.

“Our close work with the CAA, Caernarfon Airport and the significant stakeholder community across North Wales has been key to achieving this significant milestone.  Our ability to successfully integrate the technology into the existing service is delivering on our commitment to operational excellence.”

Bristow undertook two years of rigorous trials and testing, before introducing the drone for use from the HM Coastguard base at Caernarfon as a safety overwatch and monitoring aircraft, allowing the manned helicopter crew to remain able to respond to lifesaving missions.

Andy Offer, co-founder and Director of 2Excel Aviation, said: “At 2Excel we are highly experienced in rapidly turning challenging aviation concepts into cutting-edge capabilities. We’re looking forward to continuing to work alongside Bristow – in partnership with the MCA – to develop the inter-operabilities of the platforms, partners and people who deliver Search and Rescue to enhance the service.

“While providing fixed-wing search and overwatch missions using our highly customised King Air 200 platforms, we have built a strong working relationship with the HM Coastguard helicopters operated by Bristow’s crews around the UK. It was therefore a natural step for us to integrate a drone into the mix, which will only enhance the life-saving capabilities of the SAR service the MCA provides.”