LA CROSSE, Wis. (WXOW) – The La Crosse Community Foundation teamed up with AVCAP and the La Crosse Squadron of Civil Air Patrol to train the area’s first volunteer drone search team.
On Saturday, youth in the area were trained on how to use drones for search and rescue missions. Todd Mandel, President of AVCAP, said the Civil Air Patrol has been a leader in search and rescue for many years. It is made up of entirely volunteers. Typically they do searches with ground personnel or aircraft.
“They recently added drone search and rescue as one of their new capacities. It has a lot of great benefits and it’s certainly more cost effective,” said Mandel.
He explained that it costs less than $5 an hour to operate a drone but for one hour of aerial search using their standard aircrafts, it’s about $90 an hour. The training needed is also significantly less.
“You have to be a fully certified pilot and have 200 hours in order to fly as a mission pilot on board one of our aircrafts. While the Civil Air Patrol requires these drone pilots to have training, at the same time it’s not to the same level as a powered aircraft,” said Mandel.
One challenge the Civil Air Patrol was facing, explained Mandel, was getting more youth involved.
“The search and rescue piece involves flying drones. It also involves being able to process the images that come in from that and so we partnered with the Community Foundation to acquire some high powered laptops so we could allow cadets to get involved with both the flying of drones as well as processing the images,” said Mandel.
He said there is one main goal with this grant. “The goal really is to help the Civil Air Patrol increase their capacity so they can have more personnel available. It’s one thing to have one or two drone pilots but the goal of the squadron is to have 8 or 10 pilots available that can come out on short notice and help with missing persons searches , lost boaters, downed aircraft, really whatever the need is.”
The training they have to go through, he said is extensive.
“There’s really two sets of training they have to do. First they have to complete the FAA training which is not insignificant all by itself. They then have to go through some internal Civil Air Patrol training which is also not insignificant,” said Mandel.
He explained it’s mainly because the drones are advanced technological equipment that are very expensive. They aren’t just any regular drone you can purchase at a store. Mandel said if these drones were to lose connection, it would return to the last place it was launched from.
Drones, he said, can provide things search and rescue missions on foot can’t.
“These relatively low cost objects that can be highly effective and really serve as a force multiplier. It’s one thing to send out a ground search and rescue team but when you’re a ground search and rescue team member, your search radius is limited to how far you can see and in a forest, that’s pretty short. So we put up a drone, and it can see farther and be much more efficient and effective,” said Mandel.
Chasson Mierau, a 16-year old cadet drone pilot, said he got involved at the start of the pandemic because of his interest in drones. He said in order to be a mission pilot, you have to be 16.
“You have to go through quite a few tasks for Civil Air Patrol. Some of them are pretty difficult, especially advanced tasks as well as you have to get a couple emergency services qualifications,” said Mierau.
He said it also requires a Part 107 certification, which is basically a pilot test.
“I’ve been very thankful and appreciative to have this opportunity to be a drone pilot and get my qualifications,” said Mierau. “I think a lot of kids would like being involved in something like this. It’s very fun, it’s very interesting. I’ve learned a lot of things.”
While the number of search and rescue missions is hard to predict, they expect to help with anywhere from 4-8 per year. They have also been contacted by a few local departments to train them in using drones as well.