With this 1M£ (US$1.2M) agreement, the MCA plans to furthermore assess the potential use of UAV to augment current and future aerial surveillance capability « by reducing, enhancing or replacing existing delivery methods, » the tender says. Using UAVs would improve the efficiency and effectiveness of MCA operations whilst reducing the risk to MCA personnel, the service stated.
The MCA vows to « address and remove the regulatory issues and barriers to allow Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) flight in unsegregated and uncontrolled UK airspace. » A contract would be awarded in October for trial due to last until the end of 2020. Requirements include ability to search for a missing person or vessel up to 10 km away from shore in low-light, misty and/or windy conditions. According to the tender document, potential uses of the UAV also include pollution assessment and law enforcement support.
The MCA oversees search and rescue operations in the UK. Their volunteer Coastguard Rescue Teams respond to time-critical calls to save lives. They mainly rely on Her Majesty’s Coastguard (HMCG), which is a section of the MCA responsible for all maritime SAR within the British territory.
But this is not the first time the MCA has explored the use of drones in SAR missions. In 2018, it teamed with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution for an exercise in the south Wales, where they jointly demonstrated the use of UAV in rescuing people from the sea. More recently, the service also collaborated with QinetiQ on how drone technology can strengthen SAR missions.
During recent demonstrations, QinetiQ’s Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T) solution allowed MCA control room staff in the National Maritime Operations Centre, Fareham, to safely and securely control the sensor of an unmanned system in flight at Llanbedr airfield in North West Wales – over 200 miles away. The live situational awareness feed, which included marked up imagery, search status and reference points, was simultaneously distributed to multiple teams at the search site in Llanbedr, and to remote sites in Fareham, London and Southampton. The lessons learned from this activity have generated insight into how to effectively deploy small unmanned air systems in future search and rescue missions.
“The MCA is always looking to understand how new technologies and ways of working can improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the services we deliver whilst reducing risk to our personnel. This joint activity enabled us to gain a much deeper understanding of how information collected by unmanned systems can be shared effectively throughout our organisation and beyond,” Phil Hanson, from the MCA, said.