Drones lead landslide rescue efforts in biggest drone operation in Europe

Around 4AM in Norway on the 30th of December last year, a hillside gave way in the village of Ask in the Gjerdrum region in eastern Norway, about 30 kilometres to the North of the capital, Oslo, triggering a massive landslide – 300 yards wide and over 2000 feet high – that left a gaping cavernous canyon sticking like a sore thump out of the beautifully picaresque landscape.

The devastation left seven people dead, with three more still unaccounted for; and buried 31 homes. But in the massive rescue efforts that followed, thirteen people were also rescued from the desolation, following what has now become the longest flight missions in Europe, where the rescue drone flew for over 200 hours in 420 flight missions.  

A report in UAS Norway narrates how drones from the local police and fire departments, fitted with thermal imagery and heat seeking equipment, helped rescue the thirteen from collapsed houses and rubble in the still moving landslide the first few hours after the catastrophe hit the small village – reducing the number of missing persons to ten on the evening of the disaster.

Sadly, the drones were still patrolling the area in the weeks following the landslide, in desperate search for the three remaining residents, whom the rescuers have now given up hope of finding alive.

The aerial rescue efforts comprised the drones; an elite military force, a Lockheed P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft, as well as several helicopters that include a Bell 412, and AgustaWestland AW101; a police Leonardo AW169 helicopter; and SeaKing helicopters.

The landslide aftermath through the lens of a drone. Picture: Anders Martinsen, UAS Norway.

“It is with great sadness that we now receive the message that there is no longer any hope of finding survivors after the landslide in Gjerdrum,” said Norway’s Prime Minister Erne Solberg said on Twitter. “My thoughts go to those who have lost loved ones. I want to thank the rescue crews who have done everything they can to save lives.”

Foot patrols were composed of at least 30 search teams with dogs, the Oslo Fire Department, local fire crews, the National Brigade, the Swedish USAR special crew and 25 ambulances. In addition: Police and fire department drones with heat seeking capability. To say the task of coordinating all these units was a challenge, is a huge understatement.

The first drone to be deployed had to be grounded because the weather was too rough at the time. Soon, several more drones and helicopters arrived, with the unmanned vehicles giving way for the helicopters in the first few hours.

“The controlling of the drone resources was done old-fashioned and orally by standing next to each other overlooking the sunken landslide area,” said Jørgen Lunde Ronge, drone project manager for the Norwegian police.

Nedre Romerike Fire and Rescue Several brought in many drones, equipped with thermal cameras, which made it possible to spot people and animals in the rubble.

One of the drone pilots, Kenny Åserud said he was at home when he got called in for the emergency.

“My wife is a nurse, and she got at catastrophe call-in at the same time I did,” said Åserud. “I understood that something serious had happened. When we arrived at the scene, the situation was complex and difficult to grasp. But when we got our first drone up, we started to understand the scope of the catastrophe.”

The police established a no-fly zone, except for medical evacuations, search and rescue, military and police. A command centre was set up at Rygge Airfield, which controlled all air traffic in the area. The police controlled the drone resources, while the military controlled the helicopters.

Later that day, the drones finally took to the air to do surveillance tasks, while the helicopters flew the rescue missions. All in all, 420 were completed in 200 flight hours.

More than 1000 people were evacuated from the disaster area.


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