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First Responder UAS Triple Challenge 3.1: FastFind - UAS Search Optimized

Enhancing first responder search & rescue operations in search of missing persons in a heavily forested area using a UAS

National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

Total Cash Prizes Offered: $260,000
Type of Challenge: Technology demonstration and hardware
Partner Agencies | Federal: First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet the Authority)
Partner Agencies | Non-federal: FIRSTNET Built with AT&T
Submission Start: 08/02/2021 09:00 AM ET
Submission End: 09/30/2021 09:00 PM ET


Join us for this exciting drone (aka unmanned aircraft system or UAS) prize competition using your ingenuity and hardware build expertise to create a concept for a drone prototype. The result of the First Responder UAS Triple Challenge 3.1 “FastFind” will support the public safety community and its stakeholders.

UAS provide many different mission capabilities for first responders however they are not without their limitations. This challenge is looking at enabling law enforcement as well as other emergency services to search a heavily forested area for missing persons using a UAS. The goal of this challenge is for Contestants to design, build, and fly a complete UAS solution that helps a SAR team locate multiple missing persons in a thick forested area by improving image detection and enhancing navigation techniques to ‘close the distance’ more quickly.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) Division is hosting this 3-stage challenge, with prize awards up to $260,000 for the top designs. There are no fees or qualifications needed to enter the first stage. The most outstanding Stage 1 conceptual designs will be eligible to participate in the remaining stages of the competition see Official Rules.

You can make a difference! Continue reading to learn about challenge stages and details. To enter Stage 1, submit your entry by September 30, 2021. For entry as a Walk-on for Stage 2, submit your entry by May 6, 2022. Entries can be submitted through the Contestant Portal on the Challenge website at

Summary of Important Dates

  • August 2, 2021: FastFind Challenge is open for proposal submissions through challenge website; begin Stage 1
  • September 30, 2021: FastFind Challenge is closed for proposal submissions
  • October 29, 2021: Stage 1 Winners Announced; begin Stage 2
  • January 10, 2022: Stage 2 Check-in Review conducted with eligible Stage 2 Contestants
  • January 28, 2022: Stage 2 Check-in Review Winners Announced
  • April 8, 2022: Walk-on submissions open
  • May 6, 2022: Stage 2 Video Evaluation submissions due; walk-on submissions due
  • May 13, 2022: Stage 2 and Walk-on Winners Announced; begin Phase 3
  • June 20-22, 2022: Live Test & Evaluation (dates may change based on weather delays)
  • June 30, 2022 Stage 3 Final Winners Announced

NOTE: NIST reserves the right to revise the dates at any time.


NIST PSCR established the Innovation Accelerator to spearhead the research that supports the development and deployment of the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN). PSCR’s Open Innovation team engages public safety entities, government, academia, and industry to identify innovation opportunities and foster technology advancements for public safety communications through prize competitions and challenges.

Operational Use Case

Imagine you are a member of a search and rescue (SAR) team looking for multiple lost hikers in a heavily forested area. A common tool that is used to search above treetops, and in large areas, is a UAS with an optical camera. Unfortunately, due to the heavy forest vegetation, traditional optical cameras are ineffective. What sort of improvements could you make to this system (UAS & sensors) to entirely mitigate or remove the problem created by the foliage? For example, improvements to this UAS SAR system could take the form of thermal imaging sensors, acoustic sensors, air sampling sensors, etc. Additionally, the UAS autopilot could be programmed to fly more effective search patterns through data analytic methods or to move closer to a suspected missing person’s location from sensor inputs. The UAS must have the ability to search for the lost hikers from as far away and as fast as possible.

There are several UAS design features that need to be considered in support of public safety agencies.

  • The system needs to be cost effective to fit a first responder’s budget.
  • The UAS needs to be easily deployable to operate in degraded launch areas at any time, so the capability of the UAS to have VTOL is necessary.
  • The UAS should be compact since space in a first responder vehicle is often limited.
  • When the UAS runs low on power and needs to land, the process to refuel or recharge the system should be simple to quickly resume flight.
  • The UAS should be easily pilotable.
  • The system should be able to search as fast as possible for all missing persons.
  • The system should be able to identify missing persons from great distances.

UAS Design Specification

UAS entered for the FastFind Challenge will be subject to the requirements outlined in the design specifications. Click here for details.

PSCR is aware that various organizations may be developing drones with these or similar capabilities; however, these drones typically cost more than what a local public safety department might be able to afford. Additionally, they may not be practical due to the difficulty of transporting large equipment and/or the need for specialized training to operate it, both of which can be difficult for city/state agencies with limited staff and resources. Therefore, PSCR is hosting this 3-stage challenge to design, develop, and demonstrate drones with extended flight time and other capabilities that support first responders to help advance the research and push the boundaries of UAS technology for public safety.

Deliverables Due

Participants will be asked to:

  • Submit a concept paper using an online form, outlining the UAS knowledge, skills, capabilities and design approach for this challenge.
  • Create or purchase hardware necessary to build a prototype and implement the design approach outlined within the concept paper.
  • Produce a Test flight video demonstrating the UAS prototype capabilities and safety compliance.
  • Participate in a Live Competition, conducting flights in Starkville MS June 20 – 22, 2022.

UAS Challenge Stages

Table providing overview of challenge stages. If you are having trouble reading this table, please see the Official Rules document linked in the Rules section of this listing for details.


Total Cash Prize Pool

Up to $260,000

Prize Breakdown

NIST Public Safety Communications Research program is hosting a 3-stage challenge, with development funds, travel, and prize awards as listed below:

  • Stage 1 (up to 15): $7,000 each, up to $105,000 total
  • Stage 2

    • Check-in Review (up to 10): $3,000 each, up to $30,000 total
    • Video Evaluation (up to 10): $5,000 each, up to $50,000 total in travel prize awards for Contestants invited to compete in Stage 3
  • Stage 3 (up to 4):

    • Best Performance: up to $70,000

      • 1st Place: $40,000
      • 2nd Place: $20,000
      • 3rd Place: $10,000
    • First Responders Choice award: up to $5,000

NOTE: This only describes prize awards; additional contestants may win an invitation to participate in challenge stages but not be eligible to receive prize awards. All Stage 3 Contestants are eligible to compete for all Stage 3 prizes.


See the Official Rules for details on all aspects of the challenge.

Judging Criteria

Stage 1 Criteria

See the Official Rules for details on all aspects of the challenge. NIST makes an independent assessment of each Concept Paper based on the evaluation criteria. NIST will review each Contestant entry in the Solution Description. A submission that fails to meet the compliance criteria will be disqualified and will be ineligible to compete in this stage. Submissions that pass the initial compliance review will be evaluated and scored by a panel of judges. NIST makes an independent assessment of each concept paper based on the scoring criteria outlined below. Do not include sensitive materials in the concept paper, for example personally identifiable information such as social security numbers or business sensitive information, tax id numbers, etc.

Stage 1 judging criteria - completeness (50%), understandability (20%), feasibility (20%), spelling/grammar (10%). If you are having trouble reading this table, please see the Official Rules document linked in the Rules section of this listing for details.

Concept Papers will be evaluated based on the Scoring Criteria above. The specific scores will not be released publicly or provided to the Contestant. Up to 15 Contestants will be awarded prize awards of $7,000 each and receive an invitation to Stage 2: Video Test & Safety Evaluation. Winners shall provide proof of UAS insurance or demonstrate financial responsibility prior to receiving the Stage 1 prize award.

See Official Rules for judging criteria associated with all other Stages of the contest.

How to Enter

Point of Contact

Have feedback or questions about this challenge? Send the challenge manager an email