Riverside County testing drones for life-saving rescues

Riverside County testing drones for life-saving rescues

This post originally appeared on http://www.desertsun.com/story/news/crime_courts/2016/06/02/sheriff-drones-hikers-rescue/85194006/.

[Editor’s Note: Riverside County Sheriff’s Department mentioned that two drones could take over up to 30 percent of a search and rescue team’s responsibilities.]

An injured hiker’s salvation could soon come in the form of a 12-pound drone, as the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department began testing drones for use in search and rescue situations Wednesday in Thermal.

With a 39-inch wingspan, 400-foot height limit and mounted HD 1080 pixel camera, police are hoping their two new Sentera Phoenix M2 Unmanned Aerial Systems can cut down on the time it takes to rescue the more than 170 people who become lost or injured in the Riverside County wilderness every year.

Instead of volunteers tromping miles through the wilderness to where the lost person’s cell phone last pinged or flying in helicopters to scour mountainsides, a drone pilot could simply use their computer to navigate the UAS while a trained observer watches its live video feed for signs of humans — trails, footprints and gear. It’s the same way a helicopter would be used, said retired sheriff’s Capt. Frank Taylor, formerly of the Thermal station. The devices can fly for about an hour before needing a battery change and will fly up to about a mile away from their operators, Taylor said.

Chief Deputy Kevin Vest with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department said the two drones could take over up to 30 percent of the search and rescue team’s duties, freeing up ground resources to search areas in which it’s more likely to find those who are missing. This could mean life or death in the dangerous triple-digit temperatures of the Coachella Valley.

“It gets pretty hot here in the desert and time is of the essence, especially in the Coachella Valley when there’s lost hikers,” Vest said, “because the weather is extreme and can lead to death very quickly.”
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Sharon Ollenburger has been performing rescues in the Coachella Valley for 34 years. Now, as president of the Desert Sheriff’s Search and Rescue team, she hopes the drones will allow volunteers to stay out of dangerous areas during the search while decreasing their average rescue time.

“Having this eye in the air will really help us out,” she said. “It will clear a lot of places quickly where we won’t have to spend our time and our resources.”

In order to become certified by the Federal Aviation Administration, pilots will have to fly a UAS for 20 training hours and observers will have to keep watch for 10. During that training, the UAS team will practice on 400 acres of Ocean Mist farmland in Thermal, getting the hang of handling the device and using fake lost hikers to test their ability to use the technology in a rescue situation.

The department expects their 10 volunteers will be ready to go by the end of summer.

“This is going to be an incredible asset for us,” Ollenburger said. “We are going to save lives with this technology.”

Through a partnership with Sentera, the Sheriff’s Department will only pay $1 for the use of the two drones for the first year, which is designed to be exploratory. After that, the department will have to decide whether the price tag of $80,000 to $100,000 per device is worth what they have to offer.

The department began exploring the use of drones about 2 years ago, Vest said, after observing how they were used by rescue personnel during Northern California wildfires and 2013 Colorado floods that left thousands in need of rescue.

The use of drones has become somewhat politicized since their introduction, Vest acknowledged, which is why the Sheriff’s Department is hoping to make their training process as transparent as possible.

“We want the public to be very aware of how these devices operate and how we’re going to use them as far as the Sheriff’s Department goes,” he said, “and we’re not going to be using it for surveillance, hovering over houses or anything along those lines, because the device does not have that capability … (Search and rescue) is all we’re going to use it for.”

Anna Rumer covers the Eastern Coachella Valley for The Desert Sun. She can be reached at (760) 285-5490, anna.rumer@desertsun.com or on Twitter @AnnaRumer.
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