By Robbie Lunnie, Assistant Professor of Aviation, University of North Dakota
Imagine it’s early November, and you’ve been sitting in a deer blind six-feet above the ground for over eight hours. You’ve patiently waited for days, watching while your dream buck moves out of the brush and into the field late every afternoon to graze and socialize before the sun sets. Unfortunately, you haven’t been able to line up a clean shot all weekend. As if on cue, the buck moves into the field and this time he’s broadside. You take your time, line up the shot, control your breathing, and squeeze the trigger. As if an apparition, the deer unexpectedly jumps straight up in the air and bounds off over the ridge and down into the adjoining coulee. In your excitement, you climb down the ladder, grab your rifle and head off into the brush tracking him.
Hours later you find the deer, but it’s past 10 p.m. You’re cold, exhausted, and there isn’t enough moonlight to find your way back to your hunting blind. In your elation upon shooting the deer, you left your pack behind in an effort to move quickly through the brush. You are now stranded in a North Dakota coulee, in November, without any emergency equipment or gear. As you grab your cellphone to call for help, you discover the battery is dead. Then, off in the distance, you hear a faint humming noise that sounds similar to an angry swarm of mosquitos. Within minutes of hearing the noise, you see a light about 100 feet above the ground slowly approaching from the north. Weary and confused, you can’t quite figure out what it is. It’s too slow to be an airplane, yet too quiet to be a helicopter. At this point relief flows through you, as you realize you’ve been spotted by a small unmanned aircraft.
Although fictitious, this story, and variations of it, happens over and over again in all four seasons throughout rural America. Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) have been making headlines recently for their assistance in search and rescue operations worldwide. Small drones have been used to lead people to safety from devastating lava flows in Hawaii, haul climbing ropes to stranded hikers in Utah, drop life vests to swimmers in Australia, and even find a missing boy lost in a cornfield at night in Minnesota.
Unmanned aircraft are valuable tools used in countless ways to find and aid in the rescue of lost and stranded individuals. Small UAS broadcast video in real time to incident command posts, use thermal imaging cameras to fly night missions searching for the heat signature of children, and fly ropes and small payloads to people stranded on high cliffs. There’s even a recent account of a drone with a cellphone flashlight taped to it, used to rescue a home-owner from encroaching lava flows.
While extremely valuable, it is important to remember that UAS are aircraft used by skilled pilots to aid search and rescue operations. They are used in partnership with the brave men and women who are risking their lives to rescue stranded friends, neighbors, and members of our rural communities.
If you are interested in using small UAS in your community, please remember drones are first and foremost aircraft. Therefore, it is very important to understand local, state, and FAA regulations before you purchase and fly UAS for public safety operations. Furthermore, you must be an FAA certified Remote Pilot-In-Command or be a part of an organization operating under an FAA issued Certificate of Authorization to fly any public operation, including search and rescue.
Now that the snow is melting and spring will eventually yield to summer, we will undoubtedly be venturing outside to engage in our favorite activities. With this migration to the great outdoors, small UAS in search and rescue operations brings another facet of safety.From ice fishing on Devils Lake to hunting in the Turtle Mountains, small unmanned aircraft have an important role in saving lives in our communities, all while making our beloved outdoor activities safer for all people who call North Dakota and the outdoors home.