The future of water rescue: The "RescueFly" project is ready for take-off

In the future, automated drones are to facilitate the work of rescue teams in water rescue. To this end, the "RescueFly" project has now been launched, in which an interdisciplinary team of scientists and companies, coordinated by the Björn Steiger Foundation, is developing technical and operational solutions for drone-assisted rescue operations.

The aim of the project is to use decentrally stationed, autonomous drones to provide rapid and effective assistance in emergencies, even in unguarded waters, especially in operational areas that are difficult to access and cover large areas. The potential of this drone technology for water rescue is initially being tested in the Lusatian Lakeland. The project is being funded by the German Federal Ministry of Digital Affairs and Transport (BMDV) with 2.04 million euros.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), drowning is the third most common cause of accidental death and accounts for seven percent of all injury-related deaths globally. Rivers and lakes remain the greatest sources of danger. Around 85 percent of all victims in Germany drowned in inland waters in 2021, according to the German Lifesaving Society (DLRG).

On site quickly with autonomous drones

Dr. Volker Wissing, Federal Minister of Digital Affairs and Transport, said, "Drones are fast and intelligent helpers. Drones can make an important contribution, especially during rescue operations. They reach places that are difficult to access, quickly transmit detailed situation images directly to the rescue forces or transport medical equipment. The 'RescueFly' research project aims to exploit this potential to support the rescue chain. Solutions are to be developed on how autonomous drones can be used intelligently in water rescue operations. We are supporting this pioneering project with two million euros. I am sure: Their findings will make an important contribution to facilitating water rescue operations - nationwide."

Alerting and determining the location of emergencies in the water pose particular challenges to the rescue chain, as difficult-to-access and large-area operational areas require a great deal of personnel and time to gather situational information. Drones for water rescue can play out a whole range of advantages here. "The 'RescueFly' research project will thus make an important technical and socio-political contribution to the development of modern and rapid emergency rescue in Germany. With the use of automated drones, we are expanding the possibilities in water rescue and shortening the time it takes for a person in distress to receive first aid. Digitization and artificial intelligence (AI) are key factors in making these tasks effective," says Joachim von Beesten, CEO of the Björn Steiger Foundation, which is the consortium leader in the project.

Rescue drones: Autonomous lifesavers from the third dimension

With the help of rescue drones, people in distress can usually be located better than by boats or lifeguards due to, for example, a low flight altitude and clearer lines of sight that could not be obscured by strong waves. In addition, drones can automatically and quickly search unguarded bodies of water for casualties before rescue workers arrive, and relay the data to emergency scenes in real time. As a result, they can navigate rescue forces to the casualty more quickly. Also, their chance of survival can be decisively prolonged by the location-precise dropping of aids such as self-releasing floats, until the arrival of rescue forces.

Other advantages: Drones are far less expensive to procure than helicopters and ensure a faster response time while lowering deployment costs and reducing manpower requirements. Thanks to their low flying altitude, they can also be used in poor visibility conditions. Water rescue by means of drone support thus becomes a valuable and at the same time also complementary component of the rescue chain.

This is where the "RescueFly" project launched on 01.01.2022 comes in. The overarching goal of the project, which is funded by the BMDV, is to contribute to shortening the rescue time in water rescue. To this end, the "RescueFly" project intends to develop and deploy special rescue drones (UAS - Unmanned Aircraft Systems) equipped with cameras to support water rescue operations. They will be stationed decentrally in the test region in modern and technically advanced drone garages. There, they are connected online with a rescue center and equipped with adequate sensor technology. The exemplary area of operation is the Lusatian lake landscape, specifically the lakes Geierswalder See and Partwitzer See, which are located in the state of Brandenburg and the Free State of Saxony.

Innovations with prospects for Lusatia

Drones have been in use for some time in many areas where aerial support is essential for search and reconnaissance. Unmanned drones are also used to deliver relief supplies to hard-to-reach areas. The special feature of this project is therefore not exclusively the rescue drone newly developed by the cooperation partner THOLEG Civil Protection Systems, but the novel interaction of different technologies and autonomous systems.

To this end, the project is pursuing an innovative approach: the use of AI is to enable the networking of unmanned drones with rescue control centers. This goes hand in hand with the necessary digital transformation of the rescue system in order to meet the changed framework conditions and to optimize the existing processes accordingly. On the one hand, the research focuses on image analysis methods and fully automated data evaluation of optical and ultrasound-based image information. On the other hand, in the integration of the drone into the operational alerting and rescue chain.

Another focus of "RescueFly" is the area of simulation procedures for the representation of the entire rescue chain in the bathing waters of the project region. Overall, the aim is to process and structure the amount of information generated to create an overall situation picture and to enable the integration of all systems and procedures via appropriate interfaces. This should not only increase the performance and reliability of the overall system, but also open up new functionalities and applications for the rescue service.

Seamless cooperation in "RescueFly": Seven partners, one goal

In the course of the project, the use of advanced and networked drone garages as well as additional alerting and AI elements for image recognition and flight mission optimization will first be simulated in a virtual environment for this purpose, in order to analyze and optimize the location of drone garages and flight trajectories of drones to deployment points. For this purpose, the project consortium combines the expertise in simulation and image analysis from the Brandenburg University of Technology Cottbus-Senftenberg and the TU Dresden, which are responsible for the planning of flight trajectories and the concept of operation. In addition, the expertise of the TU Chemitz for the development of intelligent drone garages, with the companies from the application areas of drone development and control.

Here, THOLEG supplies a newly developed video drone that can also transport aids for rescuing drowning victims. Droniq, a subsidiary of Deutsche Flugsicherung and Deutsche Telekom, ensures the safe and automated integration of the drone into the airspace during autonomous rescue flights. To this end, it uses the traffic management system for drones (UTM) it distributes and developed by Deutsche Flugsicherung (DFS), which it also makes available to rescue control centers. Among other things, the Björn Steiger Foundation will contribute its experience in emergency call technology to the project. Emergency prevention will be strengthened with the installation of modern emergency telephones at riverbank sections. By modifying the emergency telephones already installed, the infrastructure for controlling drones and user data transmission will be directly connected to the rescue chain.

In parallel, the Brandenburg Institute for Society and Security (BIGS) is also analyzing the challenges posed by the use of drones across federal states and counties at the legal, organizational, flight operations and economic levels in another use case. As part of a final test, the institute will additionally evaluate the drone-based rescue system. BIGS will then develop the recommendations for action for a future regular operation of "RescueFly" - also in other regions. "Ultimately, the aim is to increase efficiency in rescue operations as well, for the benefit of victims and society," says Dr. Tim Stuchtey, managing director of BIGS.

Last but not least, the cooperation partners of "RescueFly" also want to position the model region "Health in Lusatia" as a pioneer worldwide and strengthen the international competitiveness of the developed drone rescue system by using open technology standards and integrating national and regional know-how into the research project. The consortium will make the results of the research project available online at


Prof. Dr. rer. nat. habil. Armin Fügenschuh
T +49 (0) 355 69-3127
The project team in front of the lighthouse at Geierswalder See in the Lusatian Lakeland (Photo: Michael Denk)