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Search-and-Rescue Drones Take Flight

August 25, 2017
search-and-rescue drones
NANCY RIMM STAPLES/DEEMISearch-and-rescue drones can fly up to 40 mph while shooting high-definition video and photographs.

A search-and-rescue (SAR) mission to locate a missing or injured person can involve helicopters whirring overhead, boats cruising the ocean, trucks traversing back roads, dogs tracking scents, and hikers risking life and limb in the backcountry. For organizations such as Down East Emergency Medicine Institute (DEEMI), based in Orono, Maine, another tool has become essential: drones.

More inexpensively deployed than helicopters, drones can reach remote areas faster than rescuers on foot and can transmit high-resolution imagery from the field.

In 2015, DEEMI became the first SAR organization to receive Federal Aviation Administration authorization to use unmanned aerial systems (UAS), which fly 200 feet off the ground at 40 mph. Volunteers view video in real time and later study individual frames for evidence. In January, DEEMI drones assisted dogs in locating the body of a missing person in the Penobscot River in Bucksport, Maine.

Some organizations are not ready to adopt UAS. James Wrigley, AMC’s SAR coordinator, worries that extreme weather might be too challenging for drone flight in the White Mountains. There are also areas where use of such devices is prohibited. “There should be some sensitivity around Wilderness Area use,” Wrigley says.

Although some SAR organizations are holding off on adopting drones, the development of new programs suggests increased demand. Staff at Piedmont Virginia Community College (PVCC) organized the first National Public Safety UAS Conference in February, attracting more than 200 attendees. DARTdrones, based in Scranton, Pa., began providing online and in-person training in drone SAR in May.

In the future, drone SAR pilots anticipate longer battery life, widespread use of infrared technology that can sense human heat, and first-aid pod delivery to injured people. When it comes to drone SAR, PVCC instructor Darren Goodbar says: “We’re at the very beginning. It’s growing quickly.”

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Becc O'Brien

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