[Editor’s Note: Next month, Piedmont Virginia Community College will begin offering a drone course geared towards emergency responders.]
The search party was looking for a boy, about 6 years old, last seen wearing an orange jacket.
The boy reportedly enjoyed playing in the water, members of the Search and Rescue Albemarle County Sheriff’s Office Reserve were told, which made the search seem more urgent — the team worried he could be in danger of drowning.
After sending out a search team on foot, incident command deployed a drone — flown by Virginia National Guard pilot Darren Goodbar — with a mounted camera to search the area surrounding a nearby lake.
The drone picked up on bright-orange clothing less than 10 minutes later. The “child” in this training exercise had been hiding behind a boat near the water, in an area the search team hadn’t yet covered.
“A ground crew probably would’ve taken 13 minutes to get there,” said Lt. Tom Payne, of the reserve division. At the end of the exercise — the third run-through of the morning this past Saturday at King Family Vineyard in Crozet — Payne said he feels confident in the new technology.
“I’m excited to use this,” he said.
The department is one of many Central Virginia emergency response agencies benefitting from a new partnership with Piedmont Virginia Community College. PVCC has been authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct research on the use of unmanned drones for public safety.
Next month, PVCC will offer its first drone operation course, taught by Goodbar and geared toward emergency responders.
Search and rescue will be the main focus of PVCC’s research and training efforts. Local authorities have taken special interest in the use of drones for search and rescue since the 2014 search for missing University of Virginia student Hannah Graham.
Drones lent by Virginia Tech proved useful during the search, said Charles Werner, former Charlottesville fire chief and a member of the sheriff’s volunteer office.
“They provide a tremendous increase in awareness because we can get a bird’s-eye view of the terrain — literally,” Werner said. “We can cover much more ground in a shorter amount of time.”
Werner said the drones will be used for emergency response, not surveillance.
The drones being tested have a battery life of just 20 minutes, but even with this restriction, they can still be used in several ways. First, they can fly out ahead of time and give searchers a good idea of the terrain and points of interest.
“We can get out in front of the ground crew and see things they may not be able to see based on the terrain,” said Goodbar, who also is director of aerial services at Draper Arden Associates, an engineering firm.
Maps don’t always offer a complete or up-to-date picture of what searchers are dealing with, Payne said.
The aircraft also allow the search to stretch over a wider area. Drones could be used to cover open or grassy areas, allowing ground crews to focus completely on areas obscured by canopy cover.
Unlike helicopters, drones do not need a special takeoff or landing spot, allowing them to be deployed in places where helicopter flight may be difficult. Drones also can fly lower and fit tighter spaces than a helicopter could.
PVCC will be working with local agencies to test many different types of equipment on the drones — infrared cameras, for example, and airborne spotlights could be tested in the future, Goodbar said.
“It’s not the golden ticket [for search and rescue], but it’s another tool in the toolbox,” he said.