Maritime search and rescue (SAR) services exist to assist people in distress or danger at sea by undertaking a number of activities such as assisting ships and vessels in difficulty, accident prevention, SAR, medical consultations and patients transport.

Regrettably, these operations are currently in demand globally due to high levels of human migration. The demand for a more efficient solution comes in particular from the institutional market (but it is not limited to that sector) in the shape of requests for technological support to manage migration flux aspects, with particular attention to the crisis in the Mediterranean Sea. Europe needs to balance efforts to assist people in need with strategies to secure its borders.

On the basis of the above scenario, the SARA consortium was contacted by the Italian Coast Guard to provide a technological contribution to support vessels charged with detecting people lost at sea, especially during the hours of darkness.

The resulting SARA solution is conceived as a semi-automated system using Earth observation data to initially detect suspect pontoons’ trajectories (surveillance) and support SAR operations, based upon a deployable remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) tightly coupled to ship architecture via a cable (tethered flight).

As soon as its function is needed, the aircraft flies from its home – a dedicated hangar on the top of the ship – and becomes a ‘virtual pylon’ that elevates a visual spectrum and thermal infrared (VIS-TIR) sensor. Captured images are processed in real time by a local computer. Both RPA and hangar are equipped with two high-accuracy Galileo-ready global navigation satellite system (GNSS) receivers in order to provide the relative positioning between the hangar and the RPA hovering over the target.

The SARA consortium has received funding from the European GNSS Agency (grant agreement No 776099), under the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, GALILEO-3-2017.