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Conclusions - the impacts of technology on SAR

Page updated: 7 January 2021

The pace of technological advancement is rapid and only going to get faster and has the potential to transform search and rescue.

Overall, technology should transform SAR for the better over time

Overall, technological advancements offer considerable potential improvement in the ability to conduct SAR operations efficiently and effectively.

In other words, technology should make it much easier to search or and rescue people over time. These improvements are likely to come from a range of sources, including:

  • better ability to locate people because they are always connected;
  • better sensors capturing (location and other) data;
  • more automation, meaning fewer people at sea (e.g. autonomous ships) and reduced human-error induced incidents; and
  • better machines, such as drones and robots, able to go where humans can’t go easily, and do so faster and more cheaply than sending humans.
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Expect both incremental and transformational improvements over time

There is considerable potential for significant transformation of how SAR is both prevented and conducted. But even small changes in how technology is used now can contribute real improvements. 

Transformational improvements

Data analytics (including predictive analytics), big data, artificial intelligence and automation/robotics combined offer powerful opportunities for both reducing demand and conducting SAR operations effectively and efficiently in future. 

We can confidently predict that in the near future, images collected by drones and satellites will provide real-time global information that artificial intelligence (AI) can and will use to find and rescue people with a high degree of accuracy. 

AI offers significant potential here because computers are much better than people at filtering large volumes of information (e.g. maps covering vast areas) and spotting anomalies (e.g. a person-shape floating in an ocean). 

Together these changes are likely to transform SAR from a human-intensive exercise to a capital and technology-intensive one over time.

Incremental improvements

Of course not all improvements need to be transformational to be of value and this applies equally when it comes to technology.  For example, one simple improvement suggestion made by one SAR sector person was to disseminate knowledge regarding the capability and best use of emerging technologies to the SAR community – especially to Incident Management Team (IMT) members. Another was to establish authoritative advice, or help desks, for IMTs to access during operations.

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But to realise these improvements will require investment and effort

To realise the benefits of new technologies, the SAR sector will need to recognise the opportunity and invest both time and money in them.  

According to some members of the SAR sector, the main barrier to progress in exploiting new technology for improved SAR services is a human one. As one person put it:

“It is almost limitless – the technology is there, it just needs human thinking to guide it.  It is a struggle to get SAR people on board with the potential because of the demographics of the sector (i.e. dominated by older age groups).

Others in the sector noted that financial changes within the sector are potentially holding back adoption of new communications technology, particularly for Police, the Department of Conservation and the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management.

One other thing the SAR sector has raised which may warrant more attention is technological asymmetry – when some older technology is in use at the same time as some new technology. 

For example, when the NZ Police recently switched off some of their analogue radio channels, this had a flow on impact for a range of agencies involved in the SAR sector. 

Such transitions from older to newer technologies will need to be very carefully planned in order to avoid disruption to SAR services.  

As one SAR sector person interviewed for this environmental scan stated:

“the current downward trend for HF radio usage and support is placing SAR teams at risk and potentially can have fatal consequences for team members and missing persons.” 

Another person interviewed for the scan observed there will also be a need for increased knowledge and experience to support new technologies being adopted.

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