Ralph looks like an ordinary guy with an inviting look and a slight smile. He is running a little late for our meeting. His colleague Glenn explains:
“Let’s wait for him! Usually, when I call him, he hurries up somewhere or talks with an ambulance”.
Ralph Simonsen is a volunteer with NPAID rescuers and the leader of its UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) unit. His colleagues call him a very competent specialist both with SAR, UAVs, and in assessing regional risk. Since 2011, Ralph has been looking for people in Norway who have been hit by avalanches. And since 2019, he has been doing so with the Atlas AvalanchePRO. Ralph has been involved in almost 60 rescue missions. The drone was used by him in a third of them. The rescuer explains the benefits of working with the Atlas AvalanchePRO below:
“This winter we launched the drone on 3.5km from a safe place to the place of the avalanche. We were using a thermal camera for looking for skiers' traces and places where skiers got caught in an avalanche. We can feel the reduced risk with the drone in the rescuer’s mission, and work smarter and safer”.
The engineer of ATLAS says that Atlas AvalanchePRO is a system developed for rescuers working in hard weather conditions. The drone is equipped with a thermal camera on a special suspension, allowing it to search for people even under thick layers of snow. It is stabilized against wind gusts, rain, and snow. The plates are fixed on the drone’s case, they guard against condensation, because of which the "modern bird" could become uncontrollable.
“During the testing, we just were watering it at the cold temperatures to check how the drone’s ‘system’ reacts to hard weather conditions. We decided the task, the drone continued the mission!”.
NPAID Mid-Troms was the first ever SAR (Search and Rescue) team using homemade UAVs back some 8 to 10 years ago. Then a few people understood the mission of “modern birds”. If we want to understand the rescuer’s operations, we ought to know the conditions of their work.
The beautiful nature and majestic scenery of the landscape that Northern Norway offers is unique, just as the Aurora Borealis is. Many tourists and amateur downhill skiers venture there to get some adrenaline and take in the beautiful views. However, for some, seemingly harmless walks end in tragedy. Each year, 5-10 people die in Norway after an avalanche. Temperatures in this region can reach minus 20-30 degrees Celsius. It often snows and rains. And since the sun does not rise high enough above the horizon, there is no sunlight for 3-4 months. All this makes the work of rescuers much more difficult.
The uniqueness of using drones to search for people under the snow was evaluated in 2019. That year, 4 tourists went missing in Norway’s Tamokdalen avalanche region. The skiers, who were in their 30’s, were searched for by the rescue helicopter, but at a certain point, rescuers couldn’t get it in the air because of bad weather conditions.
Glenn Kristoffersen, a colleague of Ralph and NAS spatial engineer said:
“On about the sixth day after an avalanche we got a call from the police. They asked us to get the drone into the air”.
As a rule of thumb, a human dies under the snow in about 45-60 minutes.
“We realized that we would be searching for people who were already dead. Around that time, half a meter of snow fell per day. The risk of avalanches was at its highest. The police decided that it was unsafe to direct people there. Helicopters were forbidden from flying too, because of low visibility. Thus, they wanted us to get the drone into the air to identify locations with people in order to get them out and hand over their bodies to relatives. We succeeded”.
The Norwegian government values the economical value of a life for the society of EUR 1.5 million. This is a very high price to pay. Using drones reduces search time and increases the chances of finding people who are still alive. And overall, when it comes to the cost of the rescue operation itself, the difference is enormous. Ralph Simonsen adds:
"If we use a drone, our search operation costs us EUR 200 per hour. If we use a helicopter, it costs from EUR 10.000 per hour up to 25.000 ”.
Rescuers now have a tool they can use where it's too dangerous to send volunteers, Ralph explains. In the past, for example, about 20 people had to be involved to explore an area. And that's not safe, because there's always the risk of an avalanche recurring. Ralph Simonsen says:
“The drone is a power multiplier. It supplements a searching mission well. I think Atlas AvalanchePRO changes the rules of a game in the most dangerous avalanche zones. We now don’t send our rescuers there, we use the drone instead. This winter we have also understood that the drone is more nimble and quiet than rescue helicopters, because it is getting through the bottlenecks and is provoking no new avalanches”.
It is comfortable: to carry the drone in a backpack on the shoulders or to put it on an all-terrain vehicle before the start of the mission is not cumbersome. Such a small tool is very easy and simple to use. The rescuers often drive or are flown through hundreds of kilometers before starting the search mission. Atlas AvalanchePro with a unique payload enables raising the quality of rescue operations compared to manual methods when searching the area is done by volunteers, whether by walking, driving cars, boats, snowmobiles or using manned helicopters or aircraft. The use of drones increases the possibilities for field observation, which is inaccessible or very time-consuming when searching for missing people, when time is of the essence. In addition to this, drones save the lives of the rescuers themselves.
We have seen almost 30 points in the Norwegian avalanche zone on the NPAID information map where drones are used to directly find or in some sitautions reduce risk for SAR operators. Ralph says the gratitude of people whose relatives were saved or recovered is a big motivation in his work. He is sure the need for Atlas AvalanchePRO will grow every year because these drones help to save more lives.