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NIST Launches Prize Challenge to Improve Unmanned Aircraft in Indoor Search and Rescue Scenarios

The First Responder UAS Indoor Challenge is the agency’s sixth prize competition aimed at advancing the use of unmanned aircraft systems indoors for first responder situational awareness.

A man in firefighting gear stands inside a building holding a flat metal drone.

Firefighters and first responders use drones in their daily operations, requiring specialized UAS capabilities for their unique missions.

Credit: Courtesy of Kansas State Salina Communications & Marketing

BOULDER, Colo. — The U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is launching a new prize competition series to advance the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) by first responders for indoor search and rescue operations. 

In the First Responder UAS Indoor Challenge, competitors will design, build and fly a cost-effective, easily flyable drone solution to help search and rescue teams gain better situational awareness prior to entering a building. Competitors will tackle difficulties in operating UAS indoors where GPS is unavailable, lighting is limited or structural integrity is compromised. The competition will be accepting entries beginning April 27, 2022, with multiple stages running through June 2023. 

“We believe the UAS Program at NIST has helped accelerate advancements in UAS technology for the public safety community,” said Dereck Orr, NIST Public Safety Communications Research division chief. “Last year, our Endurance Challenge showed significant increases in UAS flight time to help in search and rescue operations. Our current Triple Challenge is also looking at ways to help in first responder missions by improving image detection, providing broadband communications in GPS-denied areas, and identifying UAS cybersecurity vulnerabilities. These prize challenges are having an impact across the U.S. and around the world for public safety.”

Up to $685,000 will be awarded in prizes throughout three stages of the challenge. Prize recipients will be determined by a panel of judges, assisted by a team of subject matter experts, through each stage of the competition. 

The First Responder UAS Indoor Challenge is hosted by NIST and managed by Capital Consulting Corporation, in partnership with Kansas State University. 

“NIST is working on research that focuses on standards to help the UAS industry,” said Mike Yea, project manager at Capital Consulting Corporation. “It’s exciting to know that our involvement in this important work may someday contribute to saving the life of a first responder or someone in our community.”

Kurt Carraway, executive director of Kansas State University Applied Aviation Research Center, is interested in seeing contestants’ resourcefulness when flying indoors. 

“Most UAS utilized today rely heavily on GPS technology,” said Carraway. “Most of these systems are significantly degraded in indoor environments because of a lack of GPS signal. Our public safety partners indicate this is a challenge for many of their applications. We hope this challenge yields cost-effective, meaningful alternatives; this competition may improve public safety around the world.”

The First Responder UAS Indoor Challenge is encouraging all drone enthusiasts to bring their ideas to this competition. To learn about eligibility requirements, visit, and for additional information about the challenge and to register, visit the challenge website.

Released April 27, 2022, Updated February 10, 2023