Unmanned Aerial Systems, or drones as they’re more commonly known, can be a valuable resource in Search and Rescue. Drones give individuals and groups outside of law enforcement the ability view areas from a different perspective, which can often be helpful in finding missing persons or vehicles. Lets take a look at how drones can be utilized for Search and Rescue as well as some common practices for this application.
The most important thing to keep in mind when utilizing a drone for search in rescue is that even though the drone has the ability to be over someone else’s property, that doesn’t mean it should be. Trespassing is defined roughly as an intentionally entering someone else’s property without their permission either on, above, or below the ground. The “above the ground” consideration is generally extended to individuals piloting aircraft low over the ground, which would apply to your drone if you’re flying over someone’s property. It’s best to get permission from the land owner before conducting search and rescue operations there.
The next consideration is your equipment. Contrary to popular belief, not every drone is fit for search and rescue, though both copters and fixed wing will work. It’s best to have a drone that offers a live video feed, with the ability to rotate the camera so that the ground can be looked straight down upon. A gimbal is optimal as it reduces vibration in the video which makes it easier for noticing abnormalities on the ground below. Range and time aloft are also key consideration when it comes to search and rescue. The longer you can be in the air, the better. Popular models of drones equipped with adequate cameras will offer 20-25 minutes of flight time per battery, and we recommend having as many batteries as necessary to develop a charging rotation.
When deciding to search a specific area with a drone, check for areas of interest inside the search area using google maps or another similar map application. Areas of interest can include any ravines, structures, culverts, streams, ponds, etc. It’s optimal to establish a flight path to follow that starts with flying the perimeter of the search area first as the drone flying overhead may alert the missing person that there are searchers in the area which would give them the ability to come out and more easily be found, if they are able. After returning to the beginning of the search path, fly to the estimated center of the area and fly an overlapping spiral working out.
We recommend flying at an altitude that is somewhere between 150 and 250 feet depending your camera quality. The altitude should be enough to provide sufficient overlap in the footage, but low enough to actually be able to see abnormalities on the ground. Of course, remain clear of any obstacles. We recommend 100 feet above the highest obstacle within 1000 feet of the search area. Keep in mind that flying near high voltage power lines can cause interference with radio transmission.
It’s important to maintain an accurate video or photo record of your flight should you find anything. Law Enforcement appreciate being able to see anything that you can show them before they send large numbers of officers to conduct a foot search. If you find something of interest, stop recording and take a photo of it. If you’re operating a DJI drone, you can pull GPS coordinates from the photo to assist in recovery efforts.
If You Find Something of Interest
If you do find something of interest, document it from above as best you can. If you are able or feel that it is needed, render aid to individuals in distress, but notify law enforcement of your location first. If you feel that you may have uncovered a crime scene, notify police, but do not approach the scene as you may disrupt or inadvertently tamper with evidence.