KNRM, TNO and KPN test drones to detect drowning persons

Aircraft acts as extra pair of eyes in rescue operations thanks to 5G

Scheveningen, 9 June 2021 – Yesterday, a drone was used on the coast at Scheveningen in a drowning detection test. Thanks to 5G connectivity the unmanned aircraft acts as an extra pair of eyes in rescue operations, thereby increasing the chance of success. Drones could also be used for surveillance on the water.

The trial is an initiative of the Royal Netherlands Sea Rescue Institution (KNRM), TNO and KPN. It was the first trial with a drone in which the KNRM made use of a KPN 5G connection. On the basis of the images collected, TNO aims to develop software that automatically detects people in need. The trial was supported by drone companies Skytools and Delft Dynamics.

Search and Rescue
Every year, the KNRM goes into action more than 2500 times and brings more than 4000 people ashore safely. The organization had a busy summer in 2020. Rescuers were called out hundreds of times to rescue swimmers, surfers and other water sports enthusiasts, in many cases using one of the 75 boats available to the KNRM. Coastguard helicopters are also used. Drones could be an additional aid in the near future.

The KNRM says that they add value and is looking to the future with eager anticipation. “This test is part of our research into the use of drones for maritime search and rescue (SAR). Based on information collected, we will decide how to deploy drones: which drone will we send up, what sensors will we use, where should the images be sent?" says spokesman Jeroen Kodde. In addition to detection, drones could also be used for surveillance, the KNRM predicts.

5G connectivity
During yesterday's exercises off the coast of Scheveningen, a drone from drone operator Skytools took off several times using 5G. “To process the large volume of data from the drone and transmit real-time video footage, 5G connectivity is essential. With 5G you are also assured of sufficient bandwidth and better response time, which are necessary in order to fly a drone safely," explains Niels Hoffmann of KPN.

“Additionally, with 5G we can make sure that priority is given to the mobile data of the rescue services, even if the network gets busier because the beach is crowded. You could compare it with a freeway. If there’s a lot of traffic, you can get a traffic jam that makes everyone drive more slowly. With 5G we can keep a lane free for data traffic for assistance purposes.”

Thermal imaging camera
A pick-up truck of Delft Dynamics, developer and builder of drones, served as a take-off and landing platform. The drone was equipped with a camera that captures high resolution images and a thermal imaging camera that can detect body heat. The rescue operation was coordinated from a special command vehicle, from which the drone was operated too. Images of the drone were shared in real time with the KNRM’s lifeboat, which is equipped with a tablet. Using images and GPS information, the boat headed for the drowning persons.

The images are now being collated and analyzed by research institute TNO. “We collected a lot of useful practical data from the five flights, which took place under varying conditions," says researcher Judith Dijk. “With these images we will be able to develop automatic recognition of drowning incidents. Using software of that kind, we can find people in the large volume of image data and identify their location. In the future, it will be possible to use this artificial intelligence-based software even more quickly and efficiently. It could therefore be used by other pertinent organizations, such as the Coastguard Service or the Navy, to detect drowning persons.”

Testing ground on the North Sea
The location is not selected at random. The trails are part of the so-called Proeftuin op de Noordzee (Testing ground on the North Sea). This is an innovation-oriented partnership between the Municipality of The Hague, KPN, TU Delft, Sailing Innovation Centre, Svašek Hydraulics and the Watersportverbond (Watersport Association). Startups and SMEs in the maritime sector and the water sports sector can trial smart technological solutions under harsh conditions in a test area of 10 by 10 nautical miles near Scheveningen. These could include buoys and sensors for measuring wind, current and waves and the movement of ships.