Airborne search and rescue is an expensive and demanding task, but what if there was a better way?

AI-Search, Defence’s Artificial Intelligence prototype to transform airborne search and rescue is now in its second phase of development. 

The prototype is a collaboration between Air Force’s Plan Jericho, the Royal Australian Navy’s Warfare Innovation Navy Branch and Air Mobility Group’s No. 35 Squadron. 

The system, which combines a sensor and processor, is highly portable and has the potential to enable any aircraft, including an unmanned aerial system (UAS), vehicle or vessel to become an improvised search-and-rescue platform.

A recent C-27J Spartan sortie from RAAF Base Amberley off the coast of Stradbroke Island, Brisbane, with the assistance of the Australian Volunteer Coast Guard, helped evaluate the AI-Search algorithm to recognise a life raft and other waterborne vessels. This sortie was the second of several phases to develop and evaluate this proof of concept.

The AI-Search algorithms are being developed by machine learning expert Lieutenant Harry Hubbert, of Warfare Innovation Navy Branch. 

“We did a sortie off the coast of Stradbroke island and had a few GoPro sensors rigged up to detect a life raft. We had two algorithmic approaches working together to increase accuracy and the likelihood of a detection,” Lieutenant Hubbert said. 

“AI-Search is already picking up more than what we are seeing. It’s incredible and it doesn’t get fatigued.”

“This sortie was pretty challenging as the life raft was upside down making it harder to see for both the human eye and the AI-Search sensors. 

“The sensors are trained to detect an orange top rather than a black top, but the AI-Search still had a 70 per cent detection rate compared to the human detection rate of around 50 per cent.

“The 30 per cent AI-Search non-detections happened when there was low contrast between dark water and the black underside of the life raft. The good news is that we had no false positives.” 

Flying Officer Katherine Mitchell, who piloted the aircraft as part of a search-and-rescue training exercise, said it was hard to see the upside-down life raft.  

“We barely saw it 50 per cent of the time,” Flying Officer Mitchell said. 

“AI-Search is already picking up more than what we are seeing. It’s incredible and it doesn’t get fatigued.”

Plan Jericho’s AI lead, Wing Commander Michael Gan, said they were taking what they had learnt, were finding the strengths and weaknesses, and iterating the next version.

“The next phase will involve testing different sensor and processor combinations, in a range of environmental conditions, with the potential of testing on a range of aircraft – including UAS,” Wing Commander Gan said. 

To turn your game-changing idea into a joint force edge, join EDGY Air Force and submit your idea to plan.jericho [at] defence.gov.au or visit airforce.gov.au/EDGY