[Editor’s Note: If you want to learn more about drones that are used in Search and Rescue missions you can read our article about operators in the field.]

As Federal Aviation Administration guidelines stand, do-good hobby pilots cannot legally fly their drones to assist official search and rescue workers. While this will likely be addressed by the FAA as they write another round of UAS-law, and public and governmental agencies are already using drones, a community of civil pilots are already poised to use their aircraft to help.

The international group SWARM has over 3,000 registered pilots that responds to calls from families of missing persons each week. Texas Equusearch, a private mounted search and rescue group in Texas uses drones to locate missing persons, with the blessing of local law enforcement. Even higher academia is studying the role of drones in search and rescue. (Read more about these efforts and more in our companion piece, Search and Rescue Teams Save Lives with Off-the-Shelf Drones.)

If you want to get involved, remember that you must wait until an official investigation is complete. But even then, don’t just run out into the field with your drone. This stuff is complicated and the law leaves room for interpretation, which can result in a mess. So Make: tapped a mix of civil and public pilots for general search and rescue rules to know before you go out on your own.

Before You Go:

Resources and Prep for Civil Search and Rescue Pilots
First, get educated. Join a forum, like SWARM’s Facebook group, for discussions about equipment, programs, and search techniques. In addition, study up on best practices for data collection like these from CRASAR. And get trained in the workings of the National Incident Management System, as it will likely manage the operation. Knowing how the system functions will help you ascertain where officials had already searched before ending the official operation, which will save you time during yours.

Gene Robinson's Spectra fixed-wing drone. Photograph by Gene Robinson

Gene Robinson’s Spectra fixed-wing drone. Photograph by Gene Robinson

Get the Gear You Need:

How to Trick Out Your Copter for Search and Rescue
Whether it’s fixed wing or a quadcopter, you may want to equip your drone with a first-person-video rig, or opt for a recording to view later. Opinions differ, but either way, you want to take a systematic approach using grid-flying software like Visionair or another flight control system, and use a camera that shoots high-resolution footage. Map photos at regular intervals. Study the terrain, and keep a vigorous log of anything abnormal. An infrared camera can be another useful addition. Software such as Pix4D or AgiSoft can use photos snapped at regular intervals, combined with latitude, longitude, altitude, heading, bearing, and more, to produce a mosaic image of the entire area covered.

In addition to selecting your equipment, you’ll have to prepare for weather, terrain, and being outside in remote areas for hours. Merle Braley, a hobby pilot and creator of SWARM’s website, has a backpack ready with essentials: 12 charged batteries for the transmitter, a notebook to record battery life and track the time, FPV goggles, a 4’×6′ army green blanket to spread out his gear, a fluorescent orange vest to wear when he flies, a poncho to spread over the gear if it rains or if the ground is wet, waterproof hiking boots, and energy bars. He also brings binoculars and a spotter — a buddy who can keep an eye on the drone and communicate interruptions so the pilot can remain focused.

Flying an autonomous “grid search”, the drone will fly the entire mission without any hands on control of the aircraft. Photograph by Jim Bowers

Flying an autonomous “grid search”, the drone will fly the entire mission without any hands on control of the aircraft. Photograph by Jim Bowers

Search and Rescue Dos and Don’ts

Do:

  • Plan smart, and expect the unexpected. Often the demand for search and rescue hobbyists is a last resort, and urgency is of the utmost. Have your  gear organized to leave at a moment’s notice and don’t deploy haphazardly before you consider weather conditions — for the drone and for yourself — and how to set the grid pattern.
  • Be prepared, physically and emotionally. Rescuers shouldn’t have to rescue you.
  • Practice. SWARM has local groups that practice in fields and wooded areas, hiding dummies and searching them out with drones.
  • Know the rules. Know your limits, where and when you can fly, and don’t push them. If you’re not charging for your services, then you just have to follow the FAA’s rules regarding model aircraft use. Don’t fly more than 400 feet above the ground (missions should take place between 60-100 feet anyway), keep the drone within sight, and give airports a five mile radius.
  • Check with the landowner if you need to enter — or fly over — private property.
  • Prioritize safety. That means your safety, the family of the missing person’s safety, and the safety of anyone on the ground in your search area.

Don’t:

  • Go in cold, or deploy in doubt. Not just anyone can throw a copter up in the air and expect success. Do your homework with your local fire and sheriff’s departments.
  • Underestimate the power of your data. While pilots don’t always agree what type of data is best, it’s often the processing of that data that leads to discovery. No matter what you collect, it’s crucial the information is catalogued in clear, digestible chunks. With hundreds of images or video you’ll want to separate them into sections of land — create a folder on your computer and break that into sub folders, one for each easily identifiable area. Label the images to isolate latitude and longitude on a picture more quickly, and so you can put a searcher in close range of the target in the picture. Here, your terrain log will come in handy to provide written detail when you review the images.
  • Be the hero during an official investigation. You must wait for the SAR government operations agencies to pull out. Period. Unless you have a pre-established relationship with officials in your area, a Section 333 exemption and COA, previous flying experience and know how the incident command system (IC) works, steer clear. Getting in the way could result in a felony. But once the official investigation has ended, you get the green light, legally.

With thanks to:
Jerry Hendrix, chief engineer and executive director of the Lone Star UAS Center at Texas A&M University of Corpus Christi
Dr. Robin Murphy, professor of computer science engineering and director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M University
Rhianna Lakin and Merle Braley, SWARM pilots
Jim Bowers, SWARM founder
Gene Robinson, former chief drone pilot for the National Institute of Standards and Technology and founder of RPF Flight Systems