WEST Wales Airport at Aberporth is playing a key role in the development of drones for maritime search and rescue in the UK.

A demonstration off the west coast of Wales saw an Elbit Systems UK Hermes 900 drone fly in unsegregated civilian airspace and was used to test how the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) could use unmanned aircraft to enhance search and rescue (SAR) missions.

The MCA undertook a number of trial flights during the first two weeks of September during which the aircraft flew Beyond Line of Sight missions in “unsegregated and uncontrolled airspace”.

This is in addition to ongoing evaluations being carried out by Bristow Helicopters in North Wales evaluating a remotely piloted aircraft in simulated and recently real-time search and rescue operations.

Although the Hermes 900 isn’t currently being used in live operations in the UK, it will be flying in the colours of HM Coastguard and the assessment will further add to the ongoing work around using future technology in its work.

As well as for search and rescue and safety, the remotely piloted aircraft could potentially be used for counter-pollution work and provide vital live video and still photographs of ongoing incidents.

Following the completion of the trial at West Wales Airport, a report will be published at the end of this year which will identify the key components of work that will be required to achieve regular, routine flights in any class of airspace in the future.

HM Coastguard director Claire Hughes said: “We continue to do all we can to use existing technology as well as look to the future in our ongoing work of saving lives at sea.

“Remotely piloted aircraft continue to be a big part of that work both to potentially save lives in search and rescue and protect our beautiful coastlines from the worst effects of pollution.”

Elbit Systems UK, which makes the Hermes 900, said the trials were a “significant step forward” in enhancing the MCA’s capabilities when it comes to search and rescue operations and reduced risk to MCA personnel in the field.

Chief executive Martin Fausset said: “We are pleased to have had the opportunity to showcase our enhanced search and rescue capabilities to the MCA.

“The Hermes 900 is perfectly equipped to deal with the needs of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and we are proud to be able to support them as they continue with their vital, life-saving work.”

Unlike crewed search and rescue aircraft like helicopters or fixed-wing planes, drones are being explored for SAR missions as they can stay in the air for longer and are often cheaper to operate.

The Hermes 900 can stay airborne for around 36 hours.

The Hermes 900 is equipped with a search and rescue specific radar and an Automatic Identification System along with Electro-Optical/Infra-Red payload, Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon and a full satellite communications suite.

During the trials, the aircraft flew simulated shore-line rescue, water rescue and long-distance ship rescue flights across international airspace.

The drone has a number of uses including military operations. However, the company’s offering includes a ‘maritime patrol configuration’ that features life rafts which can be deployed from the drone to save people stuck at sea. This configuration has already been sold to an undisclosed South-East Asian country.