Lost? Send in the Drones and Robots!

Lost? Send in the Drones and Robots!

By Renee Morad

A person flying a drone in the country.
SourceSami Sarkia / Getty


Because sometimes you can’t call 911 for help.

By Renee Morad

It’s just another day on the job for Richard Bowie and Chris Rowley, who are sifting through 5,000 snapshots of aerial images being live-streamed from a drone flying 4 miles along the Penobscot River in Maine. The resolution is so clear, Bowie says, that he could “read the word Clorox off the side of a bottle, even if it’s up to 10 feet underwater.” But he and Rowley, his analyst, aren’t looking for litter; they’re scanning for bright colors — the most reliable clue when searching for a missing person.

Thankfully, it’s just a test run today at Down East Emergency Medicine Institute (DEEMI), an Orono, Maine-based search-and-rescue nonprofit. In a real emergency, volunteers around the country would be logging in to a network from their home computers and divvying up drone-shot images for rapid analysis until, hopefully, they found the missing.

These days, search-and-rescue operators— first responders, law enforcement and even volunteers —are pulling out all the stops to locate individuals more accurately and efficiently than ever before, whether it’s a natural disaster with an unknown number of victims or a single hiker lost on an obscure trail. Sure, there are drones. But there are also all sorts of new robots, including one with a 3-D panoramic camera. Earlier this year, when major earthquakes rattled Nepal and killed more than 8,500 people, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for the first time enlisted the help of microwave-radar technology to detect heartbeats of victims trappedbeneath as much as 30 feet of rubble. The agency is also working on new software that crunches certain characteristics of a missing person— their age and where they were last seen, for example — before it spits out the most likely placesto begin searching.

When all of these new technologies work in conjunction, we’re going to see big moves in search and rescue.

John Price, program manager at the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate

Part of this trend toward using more precise location-based tech, of course, is to more quickly locate the lost. But it’s more complicated than that. Imagery from search-and-rescue aircraft typically can’t be analyzed prior to landing, whereas drones recently approved by the FAA for civilian use now allow visuals to be streamed live. That’s how DEEMI can rely on a volunteer in, say, Ohio to spot a limb in an image before a pilot maneuvers a drone closer to that specific geolocation, saving “days, hours, minutes and, ultimately, lives,” says Bowie, DEEMI’s director.

There are also financial incentives. Compared with a helicopter’s costs of $1,500 to $3,000 per hour, a drone’s expenses can run as low as $9 an hour. And in comparison to most aircraft that fly at an altitude of 500 feet, a drone hovering at an altitude of 200 feet increases the resolution by greater than four times, Bowie says. What’s more, some of these drones can run missions to deliver payloads with survival items like food, cellphones, radios and blankets to hikers in need.

Penobscot River in Maine

The Penobscot River’s drainage basin is 8,610 square miles, making it an ideal location to run drone search-and-rescue missions.

Source Justin Lewis / Getty

Meanwhile, at the University of Maine, students are fast at work creating medical emergency pods that drones will soon be able to drop. The university’s partnering with Viking UAS, a drone manufacturer, to develop pods customized for specific situations, like if someone suffers a bee sting allergy or cardiac issues, and plans to distribute them along the Appalachian Trail on an as-needed basis in 2016, if funding allows. Other researchers, including those at Carnegie Mellon University, are turning to robotics to swiftly and efficiently clamber across tough terrain. At Stanford University, researchers have developed a robot equipped with a 3-D panoramic camera installed in its head and smart sensors within its walking poles that can easily scramble across debris in disaster zones to survey the landscape.

Not everyone thinks drones or robots are the only way forward, though. Management at the Whistler Blackcomb trails in Canada is betting on RFID, or radio-frequency identification technology, which would use markers on the mountain to record a hiker’s start and stop times and then automatically add the information to a website. Roy Campbell, a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who’s working on a project to someday embed RFID tags in trees along trails, says he expects RFID readers will be used on a larger scale in the future. Multimedia stations set up near trails could provide historical information about the mountain to hikers, he says, while silently tracking their exact whereabouts.

Many of these technologies, however, are facing an uphill battle when it comes to implementation. Paltry budgets on hiking trails run the risk of stalling RFID initiatives, while DEEMI’s drones face Federal Aviation Administration limitations — like no operating at night. Sure, some skeptics have raised concerns over privacy issues, but proponents say there’s an even bigger challenge: the inclination to exhaust traditional search-and-rescue methods before deploying more advanced efforts.

That’s not to say the path ahead is not promising. A 20-pound tool dubbed FINDER — “finding individuals for disaster and emergency response” — recently became the first device to detect heartbeats of unconscious individuals and saved four people when deployed in the wake of Nepal’s earthquakes. “When all of these new technologies work in conjunction, we’re going to see big moves in search and rescue,” says John Price, program manager at the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate, the agency’s primary research and development arm.