In Focus

How emergency services in Australia are using drones to save lives

A nurse in Lecheng, Botswana, unloading medicine from an Avy drone.

From spotting bushfires to dropping inflatables to drowning swimmers, RPAS innovations are responding to incidents faster than manned aircraft. Adam Thorn speaks to the key players revolutionising our response in Australia and worldwide.

Four years ago, Patrique Zaman was partying in Amsterdam one night when he hit it off with a stranger as the sun rose the next morning. “He was a refugee from Syria who fled the border,” Zaman tells me now, talking from the Netherlands on a Zoom call. The man was one of just three who survived when his boat, carrying 44 people, ran into trouble crossing the Mediterranean Sea. So furious was Zaman by his new friend’s experience, he called some rescue organisations to ask why more couldn’t be done? He was told there weren’t enough helicopters available, and the cheaper drones they did have couldn’t fly far enough. “I thought, ‘What the hell is going on?’”

Today, Zaman is the co-founder of Avy, one of the world’s leading businesses creating drones specifically designed to respond to emergency situations. The company employs around 50 people and has worked in Botswana, Cameroon, the UK, Scandinavia, France and the Netherlands. Unsurprisingly, his first unmanned aircraft was designed specifically to help those struggling at sea by dropping a small buoy that automatically inflates when it hits the water. It gives those in danger something to grab onto while waiting for the human help to arrive – the minutes, in other words, that make the difference between life and death. They didn’t stop there. Soon, his team began tinkering with the design to add wide-angle lenses, thermal cameras and even algorithms on board to make it easier to find people in the first place.

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