Special Research Project

A special research project to design, observe and measure the performance of air and ground assets in search and rescue operations has taken place at Northumberland National Park. The project was carried out by The Centre for Search Research in partnership with Northumberland National Park Authority and Newcastle University at a designated site near Rothbury.

The study, titled ‘Exercise Northumberland’ saw ground and air assets working together to find randomly distributed ‘targets’ over a 2km search area. Air assets including fixed and rotary wing aircrafts and unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) took part in the exercise; while trained searchers from the Northumberland National Park Mountain Rescue Team and their air scenting dog searched on foot.

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in the use of drones in search and rescue operations, which specialists at the Newcastle-based Centre for Search Research were keen to explore.

Peter Roberts, Co-founder of The Centre for Search Research, and long serving member of the Northumberland National Park Mountain Rescue Team said:

“Advances in technology since the original O’Donnell study in the 1980s means that unmanned aerial vehicles are now readily available, however, very little research exists on their effectiveness in multi-asset search situations.

“A research-led understanding of the capabilities and performance of search assets is fundamental to the use and development of Search Theory in managing search operations, especially in areas where changing terrain and weather conditions present their own unique challenges.

“When someone goes missing, the likelihood of finding them is determined by where and how people search.  This research is looking at the effectiveness of a variety of search assets both on the ground and in the air. We are looking at new technologies and how, through a better understanding of their operational application, they can be used to help in the search for a missing person.

“The research is groundbreaking in terms of its scope and originality – the collaboration of the various agencies who have both participated in and observed the experiment is unique. We are indebted to Northumberland National Park and Newcastle University Business School for their support.”

Steven Hughes, Professor of International Organisations at Newcastle University Business School, said:

“Drones are attracting a lot of interest and no small amount of controversy. Significant investment is going into their development yet is surprising how little we know about their use in complex search situations.

“This research collaboration between The Centre for Search Research and Newcastle University Business School will provide the start of what we hope will be a thorough evaluation of drone capabilities and performance in multi-agency search situations. It will also establish closer links between the University and a voluntary sector of growing importance to search and rescue responses.”

The ‘Exercise Northumberland’ report will be released on Monday 18 September to coincide with a feature on the work of The Centre for Search Research on BBC One’s Inside Out programme, showcasing their research into the use of drone technology in searching for missing people.

Tony Gates, Chief Executive at Northumberland National Park Authority, said:

“We are incredibly pleased to have been involved with this very important project which will ultimately help to keep people safe in the National Park. We hope that the results from this work will help in all search and rescue operations nationally and internationally.”

In December an international workshop will take place organised in conjunction with Newcastle University Business School.  It is hoped that an international working group will be formed to pioneer and coordinate research into the use of this emerging technology to help in the search for missing persons.  The report will be available at The Centre for Search Research’s website www.searchresearch.org.uk from 18 September.