In the UK, the average twenty-year-old spends the summer between university terms catching up with friends, heading to festivals, and generally doing whatever it takes to keep the working world at bay.
For Gemma Alcock, things were a little different. A profound experience while working as a Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RLNI) beach lifeguard was the catalyst for a career dedicated to public safety. During her first season, Gemma was first on the scene after a swimmer got into difficulty, around a kilometer away from the team’s patch on a stretch of coastline in Dorset, England.
The swimmer was already clinically dead, but thanks to the efforts of Gemma and her colleagues – who later arrived on a jet ski – resuscitation was possible and a life was saved. Gemma had experience operating under extreme pressure, having recently joined a skydiving club. But there was no guarantee she’d keep her cool in the water and on land.
“I realized in that moment that I could do it… some beach lifeguards go years before they’ve had that first experience and then realize that they freeze,” she says.
The challenge that day wasn’t effort or skill or decision-making. It was the lifeguards’ lack of situational awareness. Because they had visibility over a single stretch of coastline rather than total coverage, the swimmer was only saved because a member of the public spotted them in distress. Things could have been very different.
SkyBound Rescuer was launched in 2015 with a mission to drive the adoption of drone technology for public safety via three main pathways: research, innovation, and education. By providing systematic data to prove the potential of drones, offering advice regarding best practices, and sharing that expertise with the wider industry, SkyBound Rescuer has become an authoritative source for emergency services ready to implement drone technology.
Countless research projects, workshops, and conference appearances later, Gemma has secured investment and been awarded government funding to evolve SkyBound Rescuer into a company that aims to have a profound impact on public safety in the UK.
Since March 2022, Gemma’s one-woman show has grown to a team of 11. There’s also been a change of direction. Backed by years of rigorous research in public safety best practices, SkyBound Rescuer is now building a software solution and has ambitious plans to develop a nationwide network of automated drone stations. The goal is to provide on-demand drone capabilities to all manner of emergency services.
SkyBound Rescuer will own the infrastructure, while emergency crews can subscribe to the service and have access to the drone. “Any one of these stations could have police, fire, coast guard, and the NHS onboarded,” she explains.
The network and software will take the lessons learned from all of that research and integrate them into public safety workflows. “Users just need to select an area and they will receive a mission plan that’s optimal for their use case. This next level of drone service wouldn’t be achieved if public safety organizations did it themselves because of the costs involved and the politics involved in sharing an asset.”
The promise of a drone network service with integrated public safety software is far more feasible than many realize. Gemma sees it as the next logical step that could have a huge impact on public safety outcomes. All of this is possible because drone hardware and software are developing rapidly. But Gemma and her team have also been able to translate years of priceless research data into software that’s capable of planning and conducting flights better than a trained public safety technician. Attendees at Airworks 2022 will have seen the launch of the Drone SAR Altitude Guide, a tool for first responders using drones to find missing people. The SkyBound Rescuer software will take best practices like this to the next level, incorporating more than 20 different algorithms and decisions.
Although SkyBound Rescuer’s public safety drone network is hardware agnostic, a key component is expected to be the DJI Dock. Gemma is expecting the first unit to arrive for testing towards the end of March 2023. SkyBound Rescuer’s software has already been integrated with DJI’s Cloud API.
“People assume that emergencies happen everywhere. But if you look at historical data, a lot of incidents happen in clusters,” says Gemma, “so there’ll be hot spots for crime, drowning, and many other incident types. By putting a station in a fixed location, it can add significant value because the drone can be ready to go at any point to give you rapid response in these high-risk areas.”
The DJI Dock is compatible with the M30. But there are other – possibly more active use cases – that would require a platform with greater capacity. Gemma hints that they are exploring the potential of also integrating the DJI M300 into what will be a multi-agency network, perhaps with a view to enabling the rapid delivery of defibrillators.
Gemma has years of research data to back up her best practices. But that hasn’t always been enough in two industries – technology and public safety – that are heavily male-populated. The world of public safety is also necessarily slow to evolve; when lives are at stake, introducing new methods into tried and tested processes is done with caution.
Her position as a young female founder has been a factor in the reception she’s received at conferences and online, where she’s sometimes been questioned in ways that aren’t always constructive.
“When I’m presenting at a conference or online there will always be one or two people that say, oh, how did you come to that, what is the source of this data? Being young and female, I stand out somewhat from the others who see themselves as more experienced,” she says. “I don’t always engage with it because there are some people who have their own agenda, no matter how much evidence I can provide. So it’s choosing my battles, especially online. Most of the time it’s just an education thing. I give them more context and they thank me for it.”
Gemma points to Serena Williams and Deborah Meaden, a British businesswoman and stalwart of the BBC’s Dragon’s Den series, as inspirational figures that more than hold their own in similar environments.