Gemma Alcock

Bournemouth University graduate, Gemma Alcock, is shaping the future of search and rescue with pioneering research into the use of drone technology.

Gemma began her award-winning research in the final year of her Design Business Management degree at BU. She has since gone on to launch a company dedicated to advancing drone life-saving across the UK.

Having created initial designs for a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) while at university, Gemma believed her next steps would be to develop the product and take it to market. However, she quickly realised that the market was not yet ready for the new technology and has since set about providing the evidence and training required for effective use of UAVs in search and rescue.

In 2017, Gemma’s company, SkyBound Rescuer, staged the world’s first demonstration of an air crash drone rescue at the Emergency Services Show at the NEC. Gemma said: “The demonstration is a significant step forward for UK lifesaving, showing the art of the possible for drone rescue.”

The demonstration – delivered with the support of Professional Rescue SAR Academy and Aerones – involves one drone searching and locating casualties and another carrying a life raft weighing 60kg, ahead of rescue crews arriving on the scene.

Gemma, who developed practical experience of rescue while working as an RNLI lifeguard and SLSGB volunteer flood rescuer, said: “We know that operating at height is crucial to search and rescue. In the UK we are heavily dependent on costly helicopter services, which are under increasing pressure from tightening public sector budgets. Rapid advances in unmanned aerial vehicles provide real opportunities, but the technology needs to be specially adapted to meet search and rescue requirements. Emergency services teams also need the right training to be able to make the most of this emerging technology and we need to improve the public perception of the use of drones for them to be accepted.”

The demonstration will help Gemma to promote her own drone awareness course, which has already been used by agencies including Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service, to set up its drone capability.

Gemma’s research is focused on finding the right aerial solutions to support rescues in four key environments; night searches, mountain rescue, maritime and urban search and rescue. While drones cannot yet complete a rescue operation, they can provide vital information on an environment before teams go in, pinpoint the location of a casualty, or even supply the resources needed to stabilise casualties before other services arrive.

Gemma is pleased to be combining her interests in business, product design and lifesaving, while drawing on the skills and expertise she developed at university. She said: “I developed an interest in business while at school. I was actively involved in the Young Enterprise competitions and our school won regional and national finals. Because I led on marketing in the competition, I assumed this was my area of expertise, but when I came across the Design Business Management degree at BU, I knew this is what I wanted to do. It is satisfying to be combining the key elements of the course in my career.”

Gemma’s next step is to set up a search and rescue academy and to write a qualification which will enable people to become certified in the use of UAVs for rescue.

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