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Unleash the Life-Saving Potential of UAS

By Patrick C. Miller | September 18, 2014

A recent news report described how the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Nova Scotia used an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to quickly locate a family lost in the woods.

If there’s one application in which UAS technology can be immediately deployed to achieve positive results, it’s in saving the lives of lost or stranded hikers, locating missing people and finding victims trapped or stranded after natural disasters.

I recently conversed with two people with a great deal of experience and knowledge in search and rescue—Evert Bopp with Disaster Tech Lab and Gene Robinson of RP Search Services. They each pointed out that they weren’t amateurs flying off-the-shelf UAVs in their spare time.

Bopp’s volunteer organization has deployed around the world to provide communications in natural disaster areas where phone, radio and Wi-Fi systems have been wiped out. They want to expand their capabilities by putting a sensor on a UAV that can detect Wi-Fi and cellular signals from phones, helping to pinpoint the locations of possible victims.

Through his charitable organization and Texas Equusearch, Robinson has flown dozens of UAS missions helping to locate missing people. A licensed private pilot who also runs a UAS business and flies UAVs for a federal research project, he’s written a guide for law enforcement agencies on using UAS for search and rescue operations.

Unfortunately, even though the benefits of using UAS to save lives seems obvious, the only Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations in place allowing their use for this purpose requires the agency approve an emergency certificate of authorization (COA) under an existing COA.

In addition, the emergency COA can be issued only if manned flight operations can’t be conducted efficiently and “there is distress or urgency and there is an extreme possibility of a loss of life.”

An FAA spokesman pointed out that the agency has quickly approved the few emergency COAs it’s received. But this begs the question: Is the reason the agency receives so few requests because the criteria for their approval are too difficult to meet?

“A very long and convoluted tale” is how Robinson described the process to get an FAA emergency COA that enabled a UAV he flew to search for a missing Texas woman last week. Although he was grateful for the FAA’s cooperation, Robinson was also clearly frustrated by a process that limits the life-saving potential of UAS.