SearchWing maritime search and rescue drones

SearchWing is a German nonprofit organisation which builds and flies drones for maritime search and rescue (SAR). The drones are sent out to find and rescue people in distress on the open sea. Most often, SearchWing helps refugees trying to reach Europe in unsafe vessels.

The drones are built on Raspberry Pi hardware and software. Compute Module 4 is the brains, and dual Raspberry Pi Camera Modules are the eyes of each drone. AI-based boat detection software does the seeking and sends location information back to the rescue ship so it knows where to go to pick up the stranded people.

SearchWing maritime search and rescue drones
A Compute Module 4 is mounted on the custom board and controls the drone

Quick facts

Flight paths are pre-planned on a tablet and parsed on board by the Raspberry Pi. Each flight lasts 60 minutes and the drones have an operating altitude of 300-500 metres. Cruising speed is 50km per hour, and they’re capable of scanning a 184km2. Constant contact with the base station is maintained and the drones have a 100km range.

The drones are 102cm x 59cm x 59cm and weigh 2kg. They cost around €1000 to build. They are designed to be launched like a paper plane. You just throw them out into the air and they take flight.

You literally just throw it like a paper plane – magical
(Video from SearchWing’s Mission Report)

Research has already been undertaken to explore how the drones’ search area can be expanded by fiddling with the angle of the cameras to achieve a wider ‘sweep width’. The research paper initially compared the efficiency of planes, drones and other vessels in maritime search and rescue.

SearchWing maritime search and rescue drones
Two Raspberry Pi Camera Modules are mounted to look out for stranded people

Waterproof design

Julian from SearchWing got in touch to tell us how Raspberry Pi is helping with their work. He explained the “long and painful” process trying to make sure the electronics in the drone were waterproof. They tried many different 3D prints of a box of their own design but settled with proper waterproof IP68 connectors and an SLA printed box.

SearchWing maritime search and rescue drones
The design keeps all the electronics dry when it lands in water

The design and building of the custom board inside each drone ended up as the Bachelors thesis for a SearchWing team member.

Working together to rescue stranded people

This mission report from last December features SearchWing’s Philipp Borgers talking about testing the current version of the drone under real conditions on the Canary Islands in the Atlantic. SearchWing works alongside other rescue agencies to make quicker work of searching large areas of water, leaving the rescue boats time to do more rescuing and less searching. The Canary Islands mission was a joint effort between SearchWing and Mission Lifeline.


JOhnA avatar

Amazing project!

aBUGSworstnightmare avatar

That’s an amazing use case. Thanks for sharing! Would love to get to know more details on the drone especially as they seem to use an off-the-shelf flight controller and ‘just’ use the Pi as mission controller.

Gregor Walter avatar

Yes, thats right: we use a standard flight controller (pixracer) for all the flying, and the pi for all the rest. They are connected and communicating though: vie MAVLink a lot of data ist exchanged. You can find more info in our wiki:

petrosilius avatar

Hi, yes you are right, we use the pixracer off-the-shelf flightcontroller with ardupilot for the flightcontroll. The pi itself with its dual cameras is there for image recording+processing. You can find more details on the drones in our wiki:

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