Drones Drones & Vehicles
Search and Rescue Teams Aim to Save Lives with Off-the-Shelf Drones
Illustration by Matthew Billington
Illustration by Matthew Billington

[Editor’s Note: If you’re interested in volunteering your quadcopter and drone piloting skills to a Search and Rescue missions read our article on how to get started.]

Jim Bowers, drone hobbyist and artist, got a call late in the afternoon on a snowy winter day. Tiffany Matthews, an acquaintance from their Colfax, California community was on the other end, desperate for help. She needed his drone to find her missing fiance, and quick.

“I could hear panic in her voice,” says Bowers. “The family was looking at all options, so I didn’t think about it for more than 30 seconds before I decided I needed to at least try.”

Eric Garcia, 39 and father of two, disappeared on Saturday, December 7, 2013, somewhere between El Dorado and Placer Counties. He left Rancho Murieta in his tan ‘99 Plymouth Breeze, braving the icy roads and six inches of snow to retrieve his wallet from his home in Colfax, 50 miles away. He never arrived.

A specially equipped DJI Inspire UAV sets out to record high definition video of the search area. Photograph by Jim Bowers
A specially equipped DJI Inspire UAV sets out to record high definition video of the search area. Photograph by Jim Bowers

A search and rescue (SAR) mission involving the two counties sheriffs’ departments ensued, and was subsequently suspended after they found no trace of Garcia. Matthews, frustrated, called Bowers. “I don’t know why she thought about using a drone, but she knew I was the only one flying in Colfax at the time,” says Bowers. “At first, I was baffled [Matthews called] because I’m a lifelong obsessed artist. I use drones to create video documentaries. So when she asked me if I would do something so serious, it was a little bit of a shock.”

Using his DJI Phantom 2 Vision+, Bowers manually covered a 40-mile area for a week, in 4-5 mile sections, targeting cliffs, embankments, and places volunteers couldn’t reach on foot. The Garcia family agreed to place Starbucks coffee cups on the sides of roads marking unreachable areas Bowers should search with the drone.

Bowers' drone. Photograph by Michelle Bowers
Bowers’ drone. Photograph by Michelle Bowers

He narrowed the area to a three-mile spread between Weimar and Colfax, upon which the sheriffs’ departments resumed the search for one more day, and found Garcia dead in his mangled car. He had hit a tree and fell 75 feet down a steep dirt bank off the side of Interstate 80.

“Eric died on impact, but the outcome of him being dead in the end just kind of freaked me out,” says Bowers. “Everybody was very, very grateful for what I was able to do, and it gave the family hope and closure.” But to Bowers, Garcia’s death was just the beginning. “It moved me so much that I came up with idea of SWARM [Search With Aerial RC Multi Rotor] where volunteer pilots could register and I could dispatch them to search, helping the families of missing persons.”

Jim Bowers. Photograph by Michelle Bowers
Jim Bowers. Photograph by Michelle Bowers

Two years later, SWARM now has over 3,000 drone pilots registered worldwide, and at least one in every U.S. state. Its Facebook group alone has over 4400 members.

But while SWARM’s goal to help families find their missing persons is well intentioned, there’s little his pilots can do legally to help until after the official SAR investigation has been terminated by the Incident Command System — the government agencies (sheriff, police, fire) in charge.

There’s no question that drones have become a proven tool in the SAR field. They can collect high quality data doing logistical legwork for rescue workers, and in two recent cases, they have actually saved lives. In May last year, using a Draganflyer X4-ES drone with thermal imaging, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Saskatchewan located a man whose car had flipped. In July of this year, rescue officials used a drone to deliver a lifejacket to two boys stranded on a rock in the middle of the Little Androscoggin River, near Mechanic Falls, Maine.

But it’s not as simple as running into the woods with a drone and expecting to contribute. Collecting and processing data is complex and it’s easy to miss important details. Typically, pilots use a program like DroidPlanner to automate a grid pattern, often miles wide. Using mounted GoPros or thermal imaging cameras, like a FLIR, and FPV (first person view) technology, they record video, which can be reviewed later at 2x speed. They fly 60-100 feet off the ground (any higher, and the missing person becomes too small to spot) and shoot in 4K resolution. Flights last 10-25 minutes, giving the pilot enough time to scan the area in zig-zag sweep or expanding spiral search patterns. SWARM allows crowdsourcing, where pilots can upload footage to the Facebook forum and ask for multiple sets of eyes to comb through it.

DroidPlanner and other software options let pilots create autonomous routes to search an area without any hands-on control of the aircraft.
DroidPlanner and other software options let pilots create autonomous routes to search an area without any hands-on control of the aircraft.

This yields several problems: Uploading search footage may mean exposing personal, sensitive, or even graphic images. And furthermore, no one knows how best to meld public (government) and civil (non-government or hobbyist) pilots into the SAR process. What’s more, key stakeholders, like SWARM and public officials are not talking at the national policy level. They aren’t speaking the same language. Yet.

Some, like Dr. Robin Murphy, professor of computer science engineering and director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) at Texas A&M University, think SAR missions should be left to the professionals. Flights by civil pilots, she says, “just might not be the best use of hobbyist time in helping with SAR right now. We say in Texas, you can have a gun and you can carry a permit, but you don’t get to go to a police shoot out and help, because you weren’t deputized. I think it’s the same thing with drone hobbyists right now.”

Murphy and students conducting practice flights. Photo: CRASAR
Murphy and students conducting practice flights. Photograph courtesy of CRASAR

Murphy’s program, Roboticists Without Borders, offers free drone-forward disaster assistance to public SAR efforts. “Very few missions are going to be like the use of the Draganflyer to find the guy in Canada,” she says. “I’ve been doing SAR work and thinking in the field since 1999, and a lot of the things that you use drones for in SAR are not for direct life saving because they don’t replace people and dogs.” Mostly, drones are used to look where volunteers can’t reach, and rule out where missing persons are not — as Bowers did in his search for Garcia.

But if civil pilots are to work in tandem legally with public operations without compromising the official mission, a nationally accepted set of best practices is a must. As the barely-decade-old industry booms, drone use in the SAR field has soared as well. The challenge for the FAA will be legislating fast enough to define the role of drones in the industry. Until then, it’s limited to a conversation between hobbyists and officials, and that conversation isn’t exactly flourishing. “I’m not trying to make people mad and I think there is a role for general [civil] pilots, but I’m not exactly sure what that is, yet,” says Murphy. “We have to work through what that looks like, and the responsible people will step up to the plate, and help figure it out.”

A CRASAR copter flies over Capri, Italy, after a 2009 earthquake. Photograph courtesy of CRASAR
A CRASAR copter flies over Capri, Italy, after a 2009 earthquake. Photograph courtesy of CRASAR

The FAA promised to finalize its proposed set of small unmanned aircraft systems guidelines by next year. The provisions will address two main safety issues: Keeping unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) clear of manned aircraft, and mitigating risk to people and property on the ground. It will clarify the exemptions to obtaining a certificate of authorization (COA) to fly, and officially define what constitutes a small UAS, who can operate one, and under which circumstances.

The public SAR sector, meanwhile, has already moved to the next phase: government agencies are adding drones to their toolkits. Some are already actively using drones. In August, the Austin, Texas, city council approved a four-year drone study to establish best practices in fire and disaster situations with the Austin Fire Department. Many other operations have COAs to fly or have an application in to the FAA to get one, but the process can take up to 90 days — clearly a problem when conducting emergency searches. As a workaround to the delay, the FAA launched a new policy in March which grants COAs to commercial operations, like public SAR groups, with a Section 333 exemption (this takes 120 days, but then allows the FAA to distribute COAs quicker).

“Almost every SAR organization I know of, have heard of, or come across is either using drones or are actively pursuing a 333 exemption to fly,” says Gene Robinson, former chief drone pilot for the National Institute of Standards and Technology and founder of RP Flight Systems, which has been developing unmanned aircraft for rescue and law enforcement agencies since 2001.

Gene Robinson launches a SAR drone. Photograph by Angelique Robinson
Gene Robinson launches a SAR drone. Photograph by Angelique Robinson

“We certainly deal with a society who does not want to be regulated because they think search and rescue is easy, and I can assure you, this is not easy,” says Jerry Hendrix, chief engineer and executive director of the Lone Star UAS Center at Texas A&M University of Corpus Christi, an FAA test site designed in February 2013 to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace. “It’s important to know that there are rules that we follow for the protection of all. The number one goal is safety and it’s crucial people learn to work within the system to be able to support SAR efforts with UAS.”

Bill Quistorf, chief pilot for the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office in Washington, has worked with state, military, and federal aviation agencies for 45 years, as well as Murphy’s CRASAR. He also ran high altitude SAR operations in Alaska, and says communication is the biggest issue facing the industry. “I’m pro drone but I’m also realistic. People always want to tell me how wonderful drones are, and I say, ‘Yeah, yeah, I understand, but look at the limitations, don’t just think of all the things they can do’,” says Quistorf. “They can augment the SAR helicopters but they can’t replace them— and if we’re going to augment the helis we need a plan in place and we have to do it safely.”

Most of Quistorf’s SAR missions take place in the mountains, dozens of miles from any road, logistically posing problems for potential drone involvement. “You can’t fly a hobbyist drone 30 miles from the road and keep track of it,” he says.

Dense forest and underbrush makes aerial drone searches more challenging. Flying at night, Using thermal Imaging (FLIR) cameras onboard can be beneficial in these situations. Photograph by Jim Bowers
Dense forest and underbrush makes aerial drone searches more challenging. Flying at night, Using thermal Imaging (FLIR) cameras onboard can be beneficial in these situations. Photograph by Jim Bowers

Despite apprehension from Murphy and other SAR officials, the civil SAR pilot sector is growing rapidly. SWARM adds around 50-100 new members per week to its private Facebook forum alone. As its membership and reputation go up, so has the demand for its involvement from families of missing persons. “In the beginning, we got calls once a month, and now we get requests at least twice a week,” says Bowers.

Little did he know, when he dispatched himself to search for Garcia, Bowers started a worldwide movement in search and rescue. And though SWARM’s operations are legal, its very existence poses a larger question the FAA and all public SAR agencies must answer—what is the role of drones in SAR, and how, if at all, can hobbyist pilots help?

One step is for SWARM to enforce best practices of its own to maintain the organization’s reputation and promote the technology, despite blurry FAA guidelines and a drone-shy culture. Bowers wrote Standard Operating Procedures for SWARM, a code of ethics that follows Federal Aviation Administration law, and integrated an assessment interview to determine pilots’ skills, equipment, personalities, professionalism, and commitment before he dispatches them to the scene.

“Right now anyone can buy a drone,” says Bowers. “Any idiot can put them up in the air, and some will do it over an airport or wildfire and will screw it up for the rest of us.” To counter negligence, SWARM encourages its members to reach out to their local fire and police departments to build relationships with officials. To keep their skills fresh, localized groups regularly practice rescue missions using human dummies dressed in earth-tone clothing. Bowers frequently attends expos to keep updated on the latest drone technologies.

Bowers and a SWARM crew launch their SAR drones. Photograph by Jim Bowers
Bowers and a SWARM crew launch their SAR drones. Photograph by Jim Bowers

In addition to search and rescue, Bowers films and produces videos and documentaries using his fleet of 18 drones. In a small security shed on his California property, he edits and publishes material on his drones-for-beginners YouTube channel, Demunseed (he’s got 21,039 subscribers and 1.9 million views). He happened to be the last drone pilot to legally shoot a documentary in Yosemite with his DJI Phantom, titled A Drones-Eye View, before the FAA banned drones in national parks in 2014. He has also built 30 UAS, for himself and others, in this workshop. He became obsessed with the search for better cameras, and the newest gimbals to mount them.

“If drones didn’t have cameras on them, I would have lost interest,” says Bowers, who flew RC airplanes for two decades before drones became available. “But the technology came along, and I started building my own from scratch. When I figured out that you could put a camera on them and see the world from the top down, I was hooked.”

He also creates big, public art. Among large scale murals and sculptures, he makes statement pieces for festivals including Burning Man and Coachella. He holds the Guinness Book of World Records for building the largest working timepiece on earth — a 1.25-mile diameter clock he constructed at Burning Man in 2012.

Moved by his experience with his search for Garcia, he planted 55,000 daffodils on Colfax’s westbound off ramp to I-80, using profits from an annual festival he spearheads for the community. The perennial flowers bloom each spring and stand as a memorial to Garcia. “It’s coming up on the three-year anniversary of his death, and it’s always a hard time for the family,” says Bowers. “But the flowers are beautiful. My way to give back, maybe. It’s a just huge carpet of yellow alongside the highway.”

Patty Hodapp

Patty Hodapp is a journalist reporting on fitness, adventure, and more. She writes and edits for several national magazines.

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