Recently in Australia, electric aviation saved the day again, but not in the usual way. A man used a drone to get a text message out, allowing rescuers to find a stranded group of people.
“He was clever enough to think that if he typed the message on his phone and pressed send that it would keep trying to send until it got reception,” said Queensland Emergency Service area controller James Gegg.
The stranded adventurers then attached the phone to a small drone, and sent it up high. Because UHF radio waves almost always travel line-of-sight, they needed to get the phone up to where the signal wouldn’t be blocked by terrain and vegetation. “When he brought [the drone] back down he confirmed the message had been sent, so he did get reception…that raised the alarm and people were able to activate.” Gegg said.
Before getting stranded, the four adults and a six-month-old baby were traveling on the rugged Kirrama Range Road to see Blencoe Falls. They planned to go back by another way, but unusually heavy rains from a tropical cyclone remnant flooded the creeks in the area. They came across a creek that they couldn’t cross safely, and turned around only to find that another creek they had crossed was also flooded out. Their engine stalled out when attempting to cross, leaving them stranded in the wilderness with no cell phone signal.
What makes this case so unusual is that the drone was used as a tool by the people needing rescue and not the rescuers. So far, over 500 people have been saved by rescue personnel using drones in the field. The 500th rescue, as counted by DJI, involved sheriff’s deputies using thermal vision to locate a lost elderly woman. Many other rescues were similar, with rescuers using a drone to spot missing persons, or using the drone to relay instructions by loudspeaker. This is the first case CleanTechnica is aware of where stranded or missing people used the drone to get help.
Another thing that this case illustrates is that governments need to make it reasonably easy for people to legally fly drones.
Make it too easy to fly drones, and people will do dumb things with them because they don’t know what the dangers really are. For example, a man recently got arrested on federal charges after his drone collided with a Los Angeles Police helicopter. He heard sirens and the helicopter in the area, and launched his drone into the air to see what was going on. When he looked away briefly, the helicopter collided with his drone. This time nobody was hurt, but it could have been much worse if the drone had hit the rotors.
Make it too hard to get in the air legally, and two bad things happen. First, people will fly illegally because they don’t want to be bothered with excessive requirements. Second, people who could do good things with a drone could miss opportunities to do good things with them, like get themselves rescued or rescue others.
“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 Brendan Schulman, DJI’s Vice President of Policy & Legal Affairs, in its press release announcing the 500 people saved by drones so far.
The trick is to find a good balance. Hobby operators should be directed to resources that help them learn the rules for safe operation, get up to date notices about airspace restrictions, and do any required registration or testing online. In some countries, authorities are taking this approach. In others, drones are either very difficult to operate legally or aren’t legal at all.
One final thing we can learn from this Australian incident is the importance of backup communications. Even in places with good cell signal, phones can go down for a variety of reasons. Extreme weather, terrorist attacks, and corrupt government officials can all turn cell phones into paperweights. When traveling in rural areas, lost communication can be the norm.
To avoid this becoming an issue, it’s good to look at your backup communications options. Satellite pagers, emergency beacons, amateur radio, and many other options are out there. Whether you’re traveling into the wilderness or not, it’s a good idea to look into these.