In a previous piece, I explained that electric aviation is already here, and the small electric drones are not only carving out new niches in aviation, but sometimes even replacing fossil-fueled aircraft. Recently, small drones achieved a new milestone, with at least 500 lives saved so far.
This milestone came in mid-October, when sheriff’s deputies used a DJI drone with a thermal imaging camera to find a missing 93-year-old woman in a dark field in Missouri. The woman’s husband reported that she had gone for a walk in the woods and that they hadn’t heard from her in over 3 hours, and that it was now dark outside. Given her age, this was a particularly dangerous situation.
After a ground-based search failed to find the elderly woman, Cass County sheriff’s deputies launched their DJI Matrice 210 drone with an XT2 thermal imaging camera, which located her in four minutes in complete darkness. Video of the search is available at the Sheriff’s Office website. The missing woman, as well as deputies searching for her, were visible as yellow dots to the drone operator.
“To see that little yellow dot, knowing that that’s the person you’re looking for, it feels great,” drone pilot Major Kevin Tieman told a local TV station. Fairchild was exhausted and had lost a shoe but was unharmed when she saw the drone overhead: “I kept saying, Come on, I’m here! Come on, I’m here!”
“This is an excellent use of current technology to help our citizens. The ability to deploy a UAV in these types of situations saves time and resources, especially when time is of the essence. Every minute counts,” said Sheriff Jeff Weber.
To show the good small drones are doing, DJI has an online map and counter showing how many people have been saved by drone operators. According to the company, drones have not only found missing people so others could rescue them, but they have also brought supplies to trapped survivors and found people through smoke and darkness who were unconscious.
“Just a few years ago, drones were an experimental technology for innovators in public safety, and civilians with drones often volunteered to help the professionals in emergencies,” said Romeo Durscher, DJI Senior Director of Public Safety Integration. “Today, public safety agencies across the world have adopted drones as a standard piece of equipment, and drones save people from peril every few days. It’s an astonishing success story for public safety, and for the people who are alive today because of drones.”
To gather information on drone rescues, DJI searches social media and takes reports from a variety of sources. Media, fire departments, police departments, rescue squads, search and rescue teams, and more have supplied information to DJI’s effort. Each rescue is entered on the Drone Rescue Map with the location and date of the incident, a brief description, a link to the original story or post, and an easy way to share those incidents online. The map and DJI’s tally do not include incidents when a drone is simply used as part of a larger search process; instead, a drone must have directly located, assisted and/or rescued a person in peril.
While the information is cool, it also serves an important purpose to DJI. Its Vice President of Policy & Legal Affairs, Brendan Schulman, works to keep drone regulations reasonable and easy to comply with, while still protecting the public from the irresponsible use of drones.
“With more than 500 people now rescued by drones operated under basic rules, we can see how reasonable regulations with low barriers to entry literally save lives, and how useful expanded drone operations at night and over people will be when they are permitted at scale,” said Schulman. “The successful use of drones in emergencies also starkly illustrates the crucial benefits to society that are placed in jeopardy when policy proposals seek to restrict or limit access to drone technology, or raise the costs of such equipment to public safety officials.”
Beyond saving lives, reasonable drone regulations allow small, independent operators to do a wide variety of commercial and volunteer work without significantly raising the costs of compliance. The FAA currently requires that a drone pilot flying for reasons other than recreation pass a written test and a background check before getting licensed. Recreational users will need to pass a short online test at some point in the future.
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