A B.C. first: Heat-seeking drone used in search-and-rescue mission
At a time when it seems drones can do anything, from executing Amazon deliveries to filming high definition viral videos in remote locations, B.C.’s search and rescue community is quietly celebrating the first time a drone has located missing people in this province.
Kamloops Search and Rescue launched the drone in order to help find seven missing skiers and snowboarders who’d gone out of bounds at Sun Peaks, a resort mountain in B.C.'s Interior near Kamloops.
One of the snowboarders, who identified himself as Victor, admitted he and a friend were looking for an adventure when they followed a group of five who’d already crossed the resort’s markers to enjoy fresh snow out of bounds.
“We kind of made the assumption nothing would go bad,” he told CTV News, “which was definitely not the case.”
They spent nine hours floundering in hip-deep snow. Lucky for them, Kamloops SAR is part of a pilot program with Emergency Management BC, testing where and when drones might help rescuers.
“These were ideal conditions,” said Kamloops SAR manager Alan Hobler.
He says they already had a good idea of where to search, so the 18 searchers were able to narrow the drone survey to an area where most thrill-seekers get lost. Also, not only was it very cold, but the lost people were moving around and keeping their body heat high; that contrast made them easier to spot with the infrared FLIR camera mounted to the remote-controlled unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Hobler says the drone likely wouldn’t have spotted them in summertime conditions.
There are other limitations to the drones as well. The operator have to maintain a clear line of sight on the UAV and they can’t be flown near any airports or aircraft, meaning rescuers have to choose between using a drone or a helicopter. Right now, helicopters are the first line of offense since several people can be on board scanning the area, and the aircraft can quickly gear up for the rescue of an injured person.
“I think it's another tool in the toolbox and there's an appropriate time for different tools and if this drone worked in this situation, in my view that's a win,” said Mike Danks of North Shore Rescue.
Danks says while NSR has its own team looking at drone applications in North Vancouver, they already suspect there will be limited uses on the South Coast. The density of the trees makes a thick canopy impossible to penetrate with even heat-seeking cameras, and there’s a huge amount of air space restricted by YVR and smaller regional airports, including the float plane approach at Vancouver Harbour.
Nonetheless, Coquitlam Search and Rescue is very interested in the successful rescue at Sun Peaks. It’s the one other SAR team that’s signed up for the drone pilot project with the province. Coquitlam SAR manager Mike Coyle told CTV News there will be a conference call later this month with Kamloops SAR and EMBC to dissect every detail of the successful search.
“We’re in the learning phase when it comes to when and where to use drones,” he said.
“It’s an exciting time and the technology is constantly changing.”
But Coyle cautions that drones aren’t a silver bullet and will never replace labour-intensive, meticulous and risky searches on the ground.
“I’ve had members of the public contact me demanding to help on a rescue with their drone, insisting they can do it without understanding what’s involved. I’ve had others say if Lady Gaga can have those drones fly around at the Super Bowl, we should be using drones too. It doesn’t work that way.”
While UAV technology could yet change the way many rescuers are carried out, saving money on pricey helicopter time and limiting the time rescuers spend in harm’s way, it’s not quite there yet. Keep that in mind the next time you see computer-generated, picture-perfect drone video in a Hollywood blockbuster.