Before joining AirMap as a product manager, I spent over four years as a search and rescue volunteer for San Diego Mountain Rescue in California. Both memorable and rewarding, the experience leveraged my background in mountaineering, military service, and first aid in a way that served my community. Alongside a close-knit, dedicated team of brave men and women, I provided professional search and rescue services in any weather, at any time, and on any terrain.
Traditionally, search and rescue efforts are human-intensive and time-sensitive. Large groups of volunteers and professionals mobilize as near to the missing persons last reported point as possible. The area is divided into grids that are prioritized based on what we know about the missing person and the environment. Personnel are then dispatched in groups to canvas the assigned area, calling out for the individual. The whole process can take hours to get under way.
As you can imagine, locating a missing person is a battle against time and the elements. Hikers don’t tend to get lost or hurt on clear sunny days. This severely limits the resources available to a search and rescue operation as helicopters and aircraft can’t get off the ground to aid in the search. This leaves it up to volunteers on the ground to search large areas under poor conditions as the clock keeps ticking.
Drones could fill this gap, providing faster deployment at a lower cost while reducing human risk.
The advantages of drones for search and rescue missions are many. A drone can fly at speeds exceeding 60 mph and be deployed mere seconds after arriving on the scene. They can use FLIR (forward looking infrared) to locate missing persons even amongst dense brush. Drones record every second of video allowing for quick review and comparison of search areas. Most of all, drones can operate under conditions and altitudes unfit for traditional aircraft.
In the United States, search and rescue operations fall into the category of “public aircraft operations” and are typically conducted by public agencies at the local, state, or federal levels. As such, drone operations for search and rescue missions require a COA and are not subject to part 107.
Still, part 107 and remote pilot certification is an exciting step towards a future in which local search-and-rescue volunteers like myself can utilize drones in time-critical missions. As I learned firsthand, a moment can make all the difference.
Matthew Schwegler is an AirMap Product Manager and former search and rescue volunteer for San Diego Mountain Rescue. A former air traffic controller, Matthew is a certified Sport Pilot and Remote Pilot.