CURSOR Project

In the face of a natural or man-made disaster, urban search and rescue teams and other first responders like police, medical units or civil protection race against the clock to locate survivors within the critical 72-hour timeframe (Golden Hours), facing challenges such as instable structures or hazardous environments but also insufficient situational awareness – all resulting in lengthy search and rescue (SaR) processes. Also, “the equipment available to many relief organisations is often not as modern as we would like,” says Tiina Ristmäe from THW (Technical Relief Organisation, Germany), the coordinator of CURSOR (Coordinated use of miniaturised robotic equipment and advanced sensors for search and rescue operations).

To tackle this challenge, a consortium of 14 project partners from First Responder Organisations, research institutions and SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) have worked together since September 2019 to develop a CURSOR SaR kit that is modular, easy and fast to deploy, speeds up the detection of survivors trapped in collapsed buildings and improves working conditions for first responders. Now, in February 2023, the project comes to an end and is able to demonstrate an impressive set of drones, mini-robots called SMURFs (Soft Miniaturised Underground Robotic Finders) and geophones additionally to a system that brings all inputs together in a common, aggregated, comprehensive operational picture to support prioritisation of actions during SaR missions.

An important component of the SaR Kit is the CURSOR Drone Fleet (CDF).


CURSOR Drone Fleet

This article describes the advantages and the limitations of the CDF, consisting of Tethered Mothership Drone (MD), Advanced Situational Awareness Drone (ASAD), Ground Penetrating Radar Drone (GPRD), Transport Drone (TD), and Modelling Drones (MOD).

MD is a heavy-lifting hexacopter, which operates in a stationary mode linked to the Base Station on the ground and to a mobile electric power system via a special cable. This cable incorporates the electric power supply cable and an optical fibre cable for transmitting encrypted data. MD is equipped with a 30x zoom video-camera, LED floodlights, megaphone, and a WiFi access point. It can operate airborne continuously 24/7, provided petrol is refuelled in the mobile electric power system every 3 hours.

ASAD uses a heavy-lifting hexacopter with a hybrid propulsion system (shown in the main visual for this article). This system consists of a 2-stroke petrol engine powering an electric generator to drive 6 electric engines. It can operate airborne for about 2 hours with one petrol tank filling. ASDA is equipped with an HD video camera, thermal camera, and LED floodlights.

GPRD is a heavy-lifting hexacopter, transporting a radar unit to a location suspected to have a survivor buried underneath the rubble. The radar unit can detect a moving person underneath a few meters of rubble, provided there is no metal in the debris pile.

TD is a heavy-lifting hexacopter with an HD video camera. It can carry up to three sensor-equipped, ground-based robots (SMURFs with gas detectors) developed by CURSOR consortium members (CEA, SINTEF, University of Tohoku, University of Manchester). The SMURFs are released from the TD by remote control, guided by an ultrasonic-laser based distance meter at locations where survivors are expected. Subsequently, SNIFFERS carry out gas measurements.

TD Transport Drone with SMURF
TD Transport Drone with SMURF

MOD consists of five small quadrocopters, which fly simultaneously along pre-programmed flight paths (shown in the thumbnail visual for this article).

The drones take multiple aerial photos of the area or structure of interest for the crisis management. Software-based algorithms stich the photos together and create a 3D model of the disaster area using aerial photogrammetry.


CDF Advantages and Limitations

CDF reflects state-of-the-art technology, offering the following advantages to First Responders engaged in search & rescue operations:

  • Use of video goggles to enhance first-person-view (ASAD, TD) 
  • Hybrid power system (petrol, electric) to increase flight range (ASAD)
  • Laser-guided, remotely controlled electric winch for unloading payload (TD, GPRD)
  • Continuous 24/7 drone-based aerial surveillance up to 100 m above ground (MD)
  • Live aerial photos, video- and thermal images of the disaster area (ASAD)
  • Radar-based information of potential survivors buried under rubble (GPRD)
  • 3D model of the disaster area with low- or high resolution (MOD).

In addition, the CDF offers considerable purchasing- and operational cost savings as compared to helicopter deployment. Also, it provides increased operational safety for First Responders and search dogs, eliminating the need to operate in partially collapsed structures to gain situational awareness, and avoiding operation in a hazardous environment.

It is noted that the CDF has also inherent limitations, such as:

  • Flight limitation due to pre-defined No Fly-zones
  • Operational disturbance by electronic stray signals
  • Limited deployment in extreme meteorological conditions (below -10 C ambient air temperature, wind speed above 60 km/h)
  • Undefined radar reflections due to metal in debris pile (e.g., iron-reinforced concrete).

The CURSOR project successfully demonstrated its SaR kit at its final event in February 2023 in Wesel, Germany. Here, drones and other CURSOR components that have been developed until prototype stage, have been shown to a wide audience of first responders, technical partners, industry and other stakeholders and interested media.

Still, all the technologies require further resources to have them in the hands of first responders. Ristmäe: “The aim of the CURSOR project was to scientifically confirm if this kind of complex integrated technology system will be beneficial during USAR deployments. This has been achieved during the project lifetime. Now the next step is to see if it makes sense to continue with the whole SaR Kit or choose specific components for the next steps.  It is more realistic that we will continue with some of the single components in a successor project. This is a decision made together with consortium partners considering their resources to continue with technology development.


Article contributed by Friedrich Steinhäusler and Tiina Ristmäe

Friedrich Steinhäusler - International Security Competence Centre GmbH. (ISCC), Kaiser Franz Josef-Ring 21, 2500 Baden, Austria

Tiina Ristmäe - German Federal Agency For Technical Relief Headquarters | Unit  E I 3 | Research projects Provinzialstraße 93, 53127 Bonn, Germany