Drone helps save hiker on Table Mountain, Cape Town

DJI Matrice 200 to the rescue. Video: WCGH EMS

It is February 15 today; exactly two months to the day the Western Cape Government Health’s Emergency Medical Services’ Drone Rescue Project were finally granted a Remote Pilot Aircraft Systems Operators (RPAS) Operator’s Certificate after years of intense lobbying with the aviation regulator, the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA).

In those two months, the drone team has already been involved in two rescue missions, the most recent of which resulted in the successful rescue of a hiker who could go no further up the scenic Table Mountain in Cape Town.

The first mission had taken place in Rooi-Els, on 28 January 2021 and it was really a frustrating retrieval mission for a man who had jumped off a cliff, into the water. Twice the drones comped the coastline in search of the man, but their efforts were in vain.

But it was the second mission, which the drone team flew on February 10, this year; that would give hope for many other search and rescue operations around South Africa hoping to incorporate drones into their operations, and have them licenced in time.

Non-profit rescue organisation in the Western Cape province, the Wilderness Search and Rescue (WSAR) – which is coordinated by the provincial EMS – said it was called in to assist a hiker shortly after 10am on Wednesday. According in information from the WSAR spokesperson, Johann Marais, the 21-year-old hiker had told the rescue team that he could not go further from his current location on the mountain, and he needed help on the climb down because he no longer felt safe where he was.

He shared an image of his immediate surroundings with the rescuers.

“Unfortunately (from the image he had shared), we were not able to make an informed decision on exactly where on the rock face he was, or even how high up or down he was stuck,” said Marais.

Drone Team on a rescue mission in Rooi Els

So the drones were called in.

The EMS’s new drone wing has a DJI Matrice 200 in its inventory, an industrial grade drone built to endure and able to fly in adverse weather conditions; equipped with anti-magnetism technology and as a result and a thermal imaging camera that will enable the team to see heat signatures during the day and at night will be used. The camera picks up different heat signatures, this will result in coherent sea rescues.

The drone flies under the capable aegis of any of the five pioneer drone pilots on the team – Fabian Higgins; Jason Higgins; Mark Webster; Zane Johnson and Carlo Adonis.

But the pilots did not need the Matrice 200’s thermal dynamics on the morning of February 10, 2021. A video released by the EMS shows the young hiker at Lion’s Head peak, waving languidly at the drone that has espied him sitting among the rocks.

Said the Western Cape EMS in a statement; “The twenty-one-year-old male had strayed from the hiking path on Lions Head, close to the Clifton Crest Route and got stuck. The incident was logged at 10:35 and the drone located him at 11:43.”

Having now located their subject, the rescue team organised themselves for the job ahead; they actually had to climb on foot themselves to reach the man, which hike takes approximately 40 minutes. They got to him early in the afternoon, and took him safely to the ground.

“Whilst recreational drones are not allowed in any nature conservation area, permission was obtained to operate and use the drone in the search,” Marais said. Referring to the recent acquisition on Operator’s Licence by the provincial EMS. “The drone operation found the stricken person fairly easily. This assisted our team to plan a rescue from above the person. It also meant that our teams knew what rope lengths they required.”

This is a proud moment for drone technology in Africa; the only other recorded time when a drone was directly involved in saving a life on the continent was in 2016 in Rwanda, on one of drone logistics company Zipline’s very first missions, where the Zip flew blood sachets to save the life of a two-year-old Malaria patient, who had collapsed into a coma at Kabgayi Hospital in Muhanga District, 40 kilometres west of the Rwandan capital, Kigali.

Search and rescue drones also traversed and ravaged and flattened landscape in Zimbabwe’s eastern province of Manicland, assessing the scale of the destruction left by tropical cyclone Idai and also looking for signs of life.


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