The UK’s Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA) is seeking to use drones to aid emergency rescue operations and carry out surveillance of ships off the south-west coast of England.
The agency has invited specialists to bid for a £990,000 contract before a deadline of 19 August.
It says unmanned aircraft could help it cut costs and become more efficient.
But it acknowledges that rules would need to be eased for regular flights beyond an operator’s line-of-sight.
Interested parties have to detail their ability to search for a reported missing person or vessel up to 6.2 miles (10km) away from shore in low-light, misty and/or windy conditions.
The idea would be to transmit reconnaissance information that could then be used by helicopter or lifeboat rescue crews.
A tender document says that other potential uses include tracking the amount of pollution that vessels are leaking into the water, and providing support to law enforcement and other agencies that track activity in and around the English Channel from the sky.
While the drone missions are likely to be human-controlled to begin with, the aspiration is that at least some of the activities could be automated over time. The Times was first to report the latest initiative., saying that the contract would be awarded in October with the trial due to last until autumn 2020.
But this is not the first time that the MCA has explored the use of drones.
Last year it teamed up with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution to carry out a five-day exercise at St Athan, south Wales, where they simulated use of the aircraft in rescuing people from the sea and dealing with a mud rescue.
The agency also partnered with a police drone unit to carry out a year-long trial that started in May around Essex’s coastline.