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Automated vehicles, robots and drones

Page updated: 7 January 2021

In the future, automated machines are likely to have a significant impact on search and rescue in a range of ways

Switching to machines for very dangerous jobs

One major potentially useful implication of automation in the SAR space is the ability to get machines to do the jobs that are too dangerous for humans. 

A recent example of this was the proposal to use robots to explore the Pike River Mine following the disaster there. Other similar robots already exist overseas.[i] Such robots were used, for example, to rescue people following the 9/11 attacks in New York.[ii]


[i] Nosowitz, Dan. “Meet Japan's Earthquake Search-and-Rescue Robots.” Popular Science, 11 Mar. 2011,

[ii]“Rescue Robot.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 9 Sept. 2017,

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Automated machines will help reduce the need for SAR

Most of the time, people end up involved in a search and rescue operation due to human error. This is where automated machines can help considerably in reducing the demand for SAR operations in the first place.

NZIER estimates that driverless cars will have a $1.4 trillion dollar impact on the global economy.[i] 

Automated navigation will affect car and truck drivers, ship navigation, manufacturing, agriculture workers, pilots, people working in the food and drink industry and many other jobs. Norway is spearheading the effort to create autonomous cargo ships[ii]

Given that 37% of boating emergencies are caused by human error, with others being caused by ‘man overboard’ or medical injury, taking the human out of the equation altogether should ultimately reduce the need for SAR by nearly half (when it involves a commercial vessel).



[i] NZIER. “Disruptive Technologies Risks, Opportunities – Can New Zealand Make The Most Of Them?” Https://, NZIER, Oct. 2015,

[ii] Paris, Costas. “Norway Takes Lead in Race to Build Autonomous Cargo Ships.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 22 July 2017,

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Using drones to assist in SAR Operations

Another significant use of autonomous and semi-autonomous machines is drones. 

Global Market Insights forecasts that the agricultural drone market size will exceed $1 billion and 200,000 units shipped by 2024. Drones are already being explored for use in SAR missions in New Zealand[i] and overseas. Recently, for example, the Royal New Zealand Navy backed a search and rescue drone project proposed by Paraparaumu College’s robotics club. The proposal involves finding a way to launch a drone from ship, which has the intelligence to locate a lost person overboard.[ii]

However, it appears there are several factors slowing down the adoption of drones in the New Zealand SAR context. As one person put it:

“[There is] lots of potential for drone use in SAR but this needs to be supported by coordinating authorities (i.e. the bill payers) and by a more accommodating regulatory environment (eg. being able to easily close airspace for SAROPs would get around the safety issues that are there with drones operating beyond line of sight). 

Incorporating some algorithms (based on lost person behaviour, spatial data, best practice and SAR response guidelines) into SAR management software would probably prompt better decision making from managers.”[iii]

Overseas, drone swarms are being developed[iv] to help in SAR operations, including through global networks of drone enthusiasts such as the “SWARM network”.[v]  

Over the last few years there has been rapid development in the field of drone technology that can operate autonomously. While no approved autonomous drone systems are publicly available yet, the technology is being tested and developed[vi], particularly in a military setting[vii]. MIT’s system involves wheeled, autonomous drones that can switch between flying and driving.[viii]  A team of Swiss research has developed a specific SAR drone, which also includes AI in the form of a “deep learning”, neural network that mimics the human brain: this allows the drone to process and recall visual experiences.[ix] 


[i]“Drones to the Rescue.” Stuff, 30 Mar. 2014,

[ii] Kapiti News (22 November 2017). Navy back SAR robotics project, Accessed 1 December 2017.

[iii] LandSAR (2017).  Feedback on the draft NZSAR environmental scan, received via email, 23 November 2017, 8.26AM.

[iv] Hoffman, William. “Drone Swarms Will Soon Be Used for Search-and-Rescue Operations.”Inverse, 15 Apr. 2015,

[v] “Search With Aerial Rc Multirotor (S.W.A.R.M.).” SAR Drones,

[vi] McCoy, Sean. “'Passenger Drone' Launches to Whisk You to Work.” GearJunkie, 29 Sept. 2017,

[vii] “Autonomous Military Drones: No Longer Science Fiction (Excerpt).” Nato Review, 28 Jan. 2017,

[viii] Glaser, April. “MIT Is Building Autonomous Drones That Can Both Drive and Fly.” Recode, Recode, 26 June 2017,

[ix] Patel, Neel V. “Innovations: Why the Future of Search and Rescue Might Rely on This Drone.”Foreign Policy, 29 Apr. 2016,

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Combining new technologies could be game-changer for SAR

Combining multiple new technologies could transform the effectiveness and efficiency of the SAR sector in the medium to long term.

There are unique challenges in the New Zealand context, including the vast area of our SAR region and the challenge of penetrating dense bush and mountainous environments.

However, combining drone technologies, automation, AI and night vision / new water scanning technologies could provide game-changing operations for fast and efficient SAR in future. 

This could go well beyond just using drones as platforms for sensors as they are now. 

Furthermore, drones could provide a much more cost-effective solution for SAR activities over assets like planes and boats which are very expensive both to purchase and maintain by comparison.   

Already, certain key elements of SAR coordination are rapidly becoming computerised with NZSAR increasingly looking for people with computer networking, information management, and/or keyboarding skills.[i] 

Preparing to employ both robots and drones for rescues could be a useful way of offsetting a decline in the numbers of volunteers.  For example, due to its demographic changes, Japan is running out of people to care for its elderly, so it is using robots to replace this workforce instead.[ii]

There is some suggestion from members of the SAR sector that the regulatory environment (i.e. Civil Aviation Authority regulations) is currently the major impediment to using autonomous drones for search and rescue. 

Consequently, working with the CAA to unblock this impediment could well prove worthwhile for helping the sector access these powerful tools in future.  The CAA itself has commented on the potential for more use of drones in future, saying:

“Particularly in areas where the risk to public is low (e.g. over water at a beach), small drones might be used to quickly deliver emergency lifesaving equipment like flotation devices.

If the technology develops sufficiently, they might also be used for virtual or remotely monitoring at unattended beaches. They might be used for searching for missing persons.

They might also be used as aerial communication relay stations where there is insufficient coverage in a particular area – they are being trialled overseas for this purpose already.”[iii]


[i] "Volunteers" Accessed 4 Oct. 2017.
[ii] "forecast of nursing robotics in aged care - Taylor & Francis Online." Accessed 4 Oct. 2017.
[iii] Civil Avaiation Authority Feedback on draft NZSAR Environmental Scan, received by email 24 November 2017, 12.26PM.
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