Drone Pilot SchoolWhy Drones Are the Future of Outdoor Search and Rescue

October 11, 2021by helo-10


It’s impossible to say how many SAR teams currently use drones, because there’s no organization that collects that information from the country’s confounding array of federal, state, local, and tribal jurisdictions. The National Park Service says that last year it sent out SAR teams 2,992 times. There are currently 61 drone pilots trained to fly in the parks, though the Park Service hasn’t said how many times a drone has been used for SAR missions. The Mountain Rescue Association, comprising 106 teams throughout the U.S. and western Canada, estimates that 80 percent of its members have drone programs in various stages of development. Only a few years ago, that figure was closer to 20 percent. Kyle Nordfors has flown more than 50 missions since the Weber County Sheriff’s Office launched its drone program in 2019.

A team in Rutherford County, Tennessee, recently found a boy who got lost in the woods during a nighttime thunderstorm. The drone was equipped with a thermal-imaging camera that can detect infrared radiation. The boy lit up orange on the monitor.

In addition to thermal-imaging cameras, many drones that rescuers deploy also carry a powerful zoom lens, a blinding spotlight, and a battery with a flight time of about a half-hour. “Drones are a resource that provide you an extension of your sensory capabilities,” said David Forker, a veteran of a drone search and rescue program in Idaho Falls. Forker, who passed away several months after I interviewed him, spent nearly 30 years handling search dogs. He told me that while canines improve on our inferior sense of smell, drones enhance our sight, and they do it more safely, cheaply, and effectively than helicopters and airplanes.

When I spoke with him, Forker had recently participated in an exercise done with local police at dusk in a nearby town. An officer was told to run and hide. The drone pilot saw his tracks in hard-packed snow and bent grass, which eight other officers, searching on foot, hadn’t seen. All it took, says David Barker, the officer who played the fugitive, was a view from 30 feet above. “Things open up and it’s an entirely different perspective,” he says.

The earliest drones, like the Predator, were used in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The type of drone deployed by SAR teams is a peacetime product invented in large part by guys tinkering in garages and at dinner tables.

Chris Boyer, director of the National Association for Search and Rescue, a group made up of state agencies and volunteer first responders, says that drones are, in essence, automatic mapmakers. They give you a God’s-eye perspective on the land, allowing you to see above, across, and into a space without having to physically occupy it. “The drone solves the problem of walking to the top of the hill,” he told me.

We still have to walk to the tops of hills to rescue people who can’t walk down on their own, but with drones we don’t always need to search hill after hill on foot. “Drones don’t replace the ground search-and-rescue guys,” says Keenan Campbell, director of an emergency management office in rural Bureau County, Illinois. “We’ll always need boots on the ground. But the eye in the sky makes things so much easier.”

Drones aren’t right for every situation. Neil Van Dyke, search and rescue coordinator for the Vermont State Police, says that the dense brush and leafy trees common ­in his area can severely limit their vision and thermal-imaging capabilities. “We’ve been careful not to fall into the trap that this ­­­is the new shiny toy that is going to solve ­­all our problems,” he says.

You also have to pay up. Base models that many teams buy range from about $1,000 to $6,600, which is a big expense for volunteer groups with small budgets. (The Ogden team, which is mostly volunteer, is allocated $25,000 per year.) That’s one barrier to entry. Another is the need to train a rescuer to pilot a drone without violating the rules of the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates their use. But if a team has the money and expertise, rescuers are learning that on many calls the drone can save them time, which, in their field, can save a life.

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There is more to being a drone pilot than just buying a machine and flying in your backyard. It can be that simple, but most of us will need to understand some drone laws before we try to take to the sky.


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