Race against the clock


Race against the clock

Search and rescue in South East Asia

Former RAF officer and helicopter pilot George Duncan, Asia Pacific Business Development Director for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle manufacturer UMS SKELDAR has 6,500 plus flying hours under his belt. In this latest blog in the series ASIA SPECIFIC he considers the race against time in search and rescue operations and how smart deployment of assets can help get the job done, sometimes with a happy ending.

If anyone ever needed a short hand description of hunting for a needle in a haystack, then this metaphor is encapsulated by the hunt for the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 across the southern Indian Ocean and the land that punctuates this remote region.

It is this sort of maritime and land pattern that lends itself to deployment of integrated search strategies using assets including manned and unmanned aircraft, ground patrols and naval craft.

Add to search and rescue, strategic national requirements such as border Surveillance and Intelligence, the need to cover a spectrum of topographies provides massive headache for countries across the region. Peninsulas, archipelagos, vast maritime territories and inhospitable land terrain, rivers and jungles, all add to a variety of challenges.

The tale of the unsuccessful search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 – the scheduled flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing – that went missing with 230 people on board is a salutary example of the need to promptly engage smart search strategies. The surveillance hotspot of 120,000 sq km (46,330 square miles) underlines the cost in time and money of search and rescue, in many cases racing against the clock, with each hour lost diminishing the hopes of a positive outcome. Current estimates to-date peg the cost at $130 million. Authorities report that the search area for flight MH370 – covering a vast expanse of the Indian Ocean and approaching Australia’s western patch of the Pacific will be covered by June 2016 (the aircraft was reported missing on 8th March 2014). This was ‘narrowed down’ by international investigators who used transmissions between the plane and a satellite to pinpoint an area of 60,000 square kilometres of seabed to be searched.

Just this week, as I write from the Singapore Airshow (16-21 February 2016), we learned that Martin Dolan, head of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, and in charge of the two-year  search  said that wreckage from the Boeing Co. 777 may have slipped through the sonar net scanning the southern Indian Ocean.  According to a Bloomberg report some of the world’s most experienced Search-And-Rescue (SAR) experts increasingly accept that search may fail. Without fresh clues, the hunt should end about June, when four ships are due to finish combing the seas off Western Australia, Dolan said. Within a rectangle the size of North Korea, vessels have scoured most of the patch believed to be the likely impact point — and come up empty.

So, lessons learned? With a veritable armada of surface ships, deployment of underwater drones such as Bluefin-21, manned aircraft and Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS), it really does require co-ordination and training. We have established that numerous ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries are seeking assistance on training to support military and civilian teams in ISR and SAR disciplines across land and sea. In fact consultancy and training has become a key strategy for UMS SKELDAR to support customers in understanding how RPAS solutions can achieve a variety of mission objectives. There are many SAR organisations making progress and that includes Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency BASARNAS however more progress needs to be made in terms of co-ordination. Differences in approach were opened up in front of the world media and Heads of State criticised, speed and scope of operations. This will require ASEAN, China, IMO (International Maritime Organisation) and other agencies to agree protocols, however recent political disagreements, and territorial issues will not have helped matters. ASEAN SAR planning, as cited by Diplomat magazine appears to be based on the assumption that there will be actionable information about the location and causes of an aircraft in distress over the sea. Planning protocols assume that a search and rescue effort conducted from the last known location of the aircraft would either render assistance to the survivors or locate the wreckage of the downed aircraft. All of these suppositions were absent in the case of MH370.

The good news is that despite the ongoing tensions in the South China Sea, China and ASEAN have agreed to an expert group to provide specialist advice on setting up two so-called hotline platforms to focus on maritime search and rescue operations and rapid responses to maritime emergencies. This is a first step towards making real progress to timely and efficient response. When it comes to international rescue it has to be people first, not country of origin.



Flight Information Regions in the vicinity of where Flight 370 disappeared from secondary radar. Kuala Lumpur ACC provides ATC services on two routes, located within FIR Singapore, between Malaysia and Vietnam. (Air routes are depicted as roughly 5 nmi / 8–10 km wide, but vary in width, with some as wide as 20 nmi / 35–40 km.)









The initial search area in Southeast Asia.







The shifting search zones for Flight 370 in the Southern Indian Ocean. The inset shows the path taken by the vessel ADV Ocean Shield operating a towed pinger locator, acoustic detections, and the sonar search. The current underwater phase (both the wide area search and priority area) is shown in pink.








Fact file:

The Pacific Ocean encompasses approximately one-third of the Earth’s surface. That’s an area of 165.2 million square kilometers (63.8 million square miles)—significantly larger than Earth’s entire landmass of some 150 million square kilometers (58 million square miles).


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