Drones and Emergency Helicopters Don't Mix

John Franklin • 8 September 2023
in community Rotorcraft
1 comment

The recent floodings, affecting most of Slovenia and big parts of Austria, has seen a massive relief effort involving many emergency helicopter operations. The relief operations have been made more challenging because of the inappropriate use of drones around the impacted areas. This is something that has been observed in similar extreme events. It is important to stress that when such emergencies happen, people should not operate drones in the affected areas – whether for personal or commercial use. The only drone operations should be those coordinated with the emergency services. The same principles should apply when Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS) are taking off or landing.   

Professional drone users have tighter provisions in place to control notably the collision risk. Recreational drone users demand more care and attention, and adequate safety promotion messages, without stigmatising them as the ‘bad guys’. It's all about sharing the same skies in harmony, respecting sound operational and safety principles.

The core messages are: 

  • When emergencies happen, people should not operate drones in the affected areas – whether for personal or commercial use. Only fly drones when they are part of the collaborative effort with the emergency services. 
  • As a general rule, if you are flying a drone and see or hear a helicopter coming, land your drone asap.

The role of emergency helicopters and the importance of keeping your drone on the ground

HEMS and other helicopter emergency services provide a vitally important role in our communities. Depending on the situation, pilots need to take off, land, hover and maneuver over many different sites, including confined spaces, roads with obstacles or anywhere they need to provide assistance to a casualty or to support emergency and rescue activities.  

As more people have access to drones, this emergency activity is attracting more and more “drone curiosity”. More people are being tempted to fly their drones, either just to “take a look” at what is happening or for different commercial purposes such as assessing the damage to property, look for missing pets, or event to take pictures or videos for the news. There is a very real risk in operating drones in emergency areas where there are also emergency helicopters operating.

Drones are hard to for pilots to see

Most of these emergency activities take place outside controlled airspace and often also outside “no drone zones” where drones are not allowed to fly. For helicopter pilots, drones are hard if not impossible to see, especially when the pilots are focussed on conducting emergency operations.

In the very unlikely event, the pilot or anyone on board spots a drone on time, it is equally hard to anticipate and avoid a potential collision, even more so when the helicopter is engaged in a rescue manoeuver or hoist operation.

It is extremely difficult to estimate the drone’s altitude and drone’s orientation from the cockpit. Emergency helicopters move over very confined spaces to achieve their mission. If a drone is nearby, they can pose a very real risk to the safety of the helicopter and its occupants.

The airspace around emergency areas can be unpredictable with a lot happening

During emergencies, the airspace around the event location is likely to already be congested with helicopters and other emergency response activities, the emergency services may also being using drones in a coordinated way. Adding private or commercial drone operations into such situations increases the risk of mid-air collisions and hampers the efficiency of already busy emergency operations. Seeing and avoiding a manned aircraft may be problematic so please stay away from emergency areas with your drone.

Drones can be hard to operate safely in challenging conditions

Regardless of how skilled you are as a drone pilot, flying drones in the congested conditions of an emergency situations takes special training and a very specific risk assessment. When a drone operator is flying unprepared, it is likely that you will not have full awarerness of helicopters, aircraft or other drones that may be operating in the area. The best thing to do is to stay on the ground until the situation stabilises.

An additional challenges is drones can also be difficult to control in certain situations such as bad weather or near other aircraft. The drone's flight patterns may be unpredictable, making it challenging for you to control your drones. It is likely that you will not hear or see an inbound or departing helicopter quickly enough to avoid a collision.

It is also more easy to lose sight of your the drone. If the return-to-home feature this creates another risk in itself as, once activated, the drone may be autonomous, having no ability to sense and avoid another aircraft, increasing the risk of a collision.

Avoidance is the responsibility of the drone pilot – better to stay on the ground in emergency situations. 

With sincere gratitude and recognition to the "Police Air Support Unit Slovenia" the "Slovenian Army Air Support" for providing the footage for this video and for their outstanding efforts.

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