Are Drones the future of Search and Rescue

By | December 28, 2015

droneDuring a recent missing person case, I was introduced the idea of utilizing drones in a search and rescue operation. The benefits of using drones was spelled out to me and while they made complete sense, I did not get the sense that good old boots on the ground searching would be pushed the wayside.

For those that may not be aware of what drones are, they are remotely piloted aircraft that have the ability to have a camera mounted on them which can record video and in many cases, send that video to the operator piloting the drone.  These drones can be purchased from anywhere from a couple of hundred dollars to many thousands of dollars, with the higher end drones offering more features and better camera equipment.  After looking at several drones available on the internet, it truly does seem like a case of “you get what you pay for”.

Lucky for those of us that routinely work missing person cases and those that are active in search and rescue, there are a few organizations which have drone owners and operators that are willing to donate their time (and their equipment) to help search for a missing person.  After talking with a few drone operators, they did let me know that they do accept donations to help pay for fuel, but even with an organization covering the fuel cost for a drone operator that is willing to donate their time and equipment, that is a huge cost savings for anyone running a search and rescue operation and should not be overlooked if the conditions are right.

Check out this video from the Ventura County Sheriffs Department on the use of drones in search and rescue.

A plus to using drones is that you can set many drones to operate in an autonomous grid search which means they can cover a specific area with little to no input from the operator while in flight.  This helps to ensure that every inch of ground is covered in a systematic way so nothing is overlooked.

From what I have gathered in my research, the following conditions should be me in order for a drone to be most advantageous for a search and rescue operation.

  1. A specific area should be noted for the search area.  Searching thousands of square miles of a National Park is not doable for a drone since they do have limited range.
  2. An area without a lot of overhead cover such as a thick canopy or very thick underbrush will likely hamper any search by drone.  If you cannot see it easily from the air, the drones are unlikely to help spot it.
  3. Open areas and rugged terrain such as the side of a steep mountain or a riverbed may be preferable as the drone will have amply amount of room to navigate and will be able to see the ground more clearly.
  4. Drones could prove invaluable to recon rough and challenging terrain to help determine what tools and equipment may be needed for recovery and extraction.

While I personally do not own a drone, it is something that I have looked into and will most likely purchase in the future.  As the technology improves, the prices are sure to come down quite a bit and eventually, drone operators will be fully integrated as a part of search and rescue teams.

Earlier this year, a search and rescue organization out of the state of Maine become the first civilian entity of its type to receive permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to use unmanned aircraft systems, or drones.  You can read more about it here.

There are currently a few organizations that have made their volunteer drone operators available for use in search and rescue and I will list them below:

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