5G drone trials help emergency services patrol UK national parks 

5G drone trials help emergency services patrol UK national parks 
Duncan is an award-winning editor with more than 20 years experience in journalism. Having launched his tech journalism career as editor of Arabian Computer News in Dubai, he has since edited an array of tech and digital marketing publications, including Computer Business Review, TechWeekEurope, Figaro Digital, Digit and Marketing Gazette.

With nearly three quarters (73%) of Brits having walked or hiked at a UK national park this year, or planning to in the near future, Virgin Media O2 has announced plans to trial 4G and 5G connected drone technology with the Snowdonia Aerospace Centre to help emergency services and Mountain Rescue volunteers protect lives.  

The telecommunications company is providing vital 4G and 5G connectivity to the Snowdonia area via the ‘Dragon’ Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS / drone) provided by Snowdonia Aerospace. The drone will act as an airborne network, should visitors need mobile connectivity for assistance purposes. It will also allow first responders to access essential information, assess situations at speed, and easily locate and save those who are in danger. The trials are exploring how connectivity can provide key support to emergency services so they can respond more quickly, more decisively and more efficiently to hikers stranded within the park, as well as cutting costs and being more environmentally friendly. 

Visitor numbers to national parks have increased since the pandemic, with emergency services having to deal with record numbers of callouts across England and Wales this year – up around 40% from 2019 and 15% from 2020*. The data is backed up by new Virgin Media O2 research, showing that 63% of Britons visited at least one UK national park in the last year and over a third (34%) would include walking or hiking in a UK holiday to save money due to the cost-of-living crisis. However, getting lost (35%), injured (33%) and being unable to contact anyone (31%) were some of the key concerns facing people considering choosing a walking or hiking holiday, potentially putting them off visiting a national park.  

In rural areas, such as Snowdonia, emergency services are reliant on receiving 999 calls. However, mobile connections can often be interrupted by the extreme geographical landscape, which impacts emergency calls and the reliability of geographical location data, essential for finding those who are lost or in need of urgent help.  

The logistics prove extremely difficult for search and rescue teams to narrow the search area when they are called out across vast and remote landscapes. The trial will solve these challenges by providing a standalone airborne 5G NR (New Radio) network, which will enable the delivery of coverage to remote areas and retain geographical location data for calls. It will also mean mountain rescue teams can go beyond purely voice calls, with the next-gen connectivity enabling picture sharing and video calling that could even help teams guide people back to safety without needing to send out a team of volunteers, saving teams valuable time and resource.  

Funded to date by the Innovate UK Future Flight Challenge and a Department for Transport Drone Technology Research and Innovation Grant, the project involves Virgin Media O2, Snowdonia Aerospace, SwiftFlight Avionics, Wavemobile, and the Welsh Government. The trial would extend Virgin Media O2’s commitment to pursue new connectivity-enabled innovations that solve real issues and make an impact on consumers and businesses, which forms part of the company’s overall ambition to upgrade the UK with connectivity. 

Minister for the Economy of Wales, Vaughan Gething, said: “Connectivity is the bedrock of our digital world. It brings us all closer together and is especially important in situations concerning safety. I am delighted we are supporting this innovative project, which further demonstrates how technology can help us problem solve and improve our lives.” 

Kirsty Bright, director of network innovation and transformation at Virgin Media O2, said: “This project is a further example of how 5G technologies can provide real societal benefits for people around the UK, wherever they are. This trial could transform how emergency services operate and react to life-threatening situations, and make people feel safer while enjoying national parks. We’ve already run our first successful test flights at the Llanbedr airport with the Snowdonia Aerospace team and look forward to demonstrating how it can support mountain rescue teams across Snowdonia. Trials like this are all part of our wider commitment to upgrading the UK and showing the power of 5G connectivity.” 

Paul Terry a police sergeant in the North Wales Police Drone Unit and Mountain Rescue volunteer, said: “Mountain Rescue is a volunteer service and there is only so much resource we have available to us. With more and more people visiting Snowdonia each year, a drone with mobile connectivity would be a powerful tool for the search and rescue teams to understand and assess a situation immediately, saving crucial time in life-threatening situations.” 

Sarah Jones, volunteer with North Wales Mountain Rescue Association, said: “Every day Snowdonia welcomes visitors from across the UK, all with varying levels of hiking experience. With the research showing just how popular walking and hiking remains with British holidaymakers, trials like the one with Virgin Media O2 are increasingly important to keep hikers safe, particularly if they opt to walk alone.”  

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