Integrating Aerial Photography in Search and Rescue

During the search and rescue effort in which I played a (very small) role, it occurred to me that it would have been nice to use aerial photography in the search.

Our group had aircraft available, but in the end ground teams found the vehicle. There are several obvious limitations to searching by eye out of an aircraft window. You can look away. You can fail to see something subtle. You can sneeze at just the wrong moment.

Far better would be to borrow a plan (or a drone) with aerial photography capabilities. Then the idea is to fly quickly in a grid pattern, snapping detailed photos of the ground as you go.

Once these photos are taken, they could be uploaded to the internet (as a friend of mine suggested), where dozens (or thousands) of eyes could pour over them. (Alternately, they could be subject to digital processing.) What one person working alone might miss, one of a hundred might spot.

Our landscape was perfect for such aerial photography. The land was relatively barren, with stumpy desert trees. The weather was mostly perfect, with clear skies. Obviously in a dense forest or in fog the idea wouldn’t work.

My understanding is that there are quite a number of planes throughout the country already equipped with aerial photography. It would be fantastic if one of these planes could be easily rented (or borrowed) in search and rescue efforts.

In our case, it turned out, the delay didn’t matter (to the missing persons). But in other cases, rapid discovery could mean the difference between life and death.

  • Ari Armstrong

    Anonymous wrote February 14, 2012:
    Ari, you raise excellent points. And much IS available right now, and more within a matter of months. Aerial photography is available in a LOT of ways: there are two mostly-local companies (Aero-Metrics in Fort Collins and Horizon, Inc. in Rapid City) that fly aerial photography every day, over much of the nation. There are dozens of private plans that are able to mount cameras to produce video or still photos at sub-meter resolution. There are tens of dozens of planes and people with cameras who can do something similar, if not as sophisticated. And Hundreds of people who have RC aircraft capable of mounting cameras. And who have (or have friends who have) the ability to download and process – and even do comparisons of terrain. And drones (those nasty evil things) that can do this are based in several states, and are finally able to be used in the US – years after they should have been. And there is close to realtime satellite photography available from EROS (a sister to NASA) in South Dakota for the entire nation. But that is usually reserved for more important things, like CDPHE seeing if one of the tens of thousands of permit-holders of environmental permits might not have reported that one of their earthmovers had a leak of a gallon or two of hydraulic fluid or lube oil – or that one of their trucks drove AROUND the gravel pad and tracked mud onto a public road.
    Problem is, people DON’T THINK and DON’T plan ahead. These things can’t work at 9 AM on Saturday morning when you realize someone didn’t make it home Friday night: not unless some people – usually a LOT of people, sat down weeks and months before and worked out how to do it. Of course, today, they’d get turned in to DHS or our local fusion center as being terrorists because they are figuring out how to rapidly deploy intelligence-gathering assets to a previously-unknown location so that they can help the mad-suicide-vest bomber get her target. Just as we arrest people for taking pictures of cops on the street and grade-school choruses singing Xmas carols in malls and people taking pictures of the Mint or the DPD local precinct or the security at DIA. And of course, everyone of those groups that get funded by taxpayers (CSP, CBI, Sheriff’s Offices, local fire districts, etc. etc. will all object to “civilians” doing this – or even having the capacity to do this. So they will spend six years putting together a plan and submit a bill for another half-billion to the bozos on Capitol Hill in Denver of increased spending – no doubt including a way to start taxing people with RC airplanes more.
    We can’t win. Not with this government – local, county, and state – that we have here today.

  • Ari Armstrong

    Colorado Springs Powered Paragliding wrote March 31, 2012:
    There is an alternative to Airplanes for aerial search and rescue. A Powered Paraglider can fly very low and slow, but even at slow speeds, 25-35 mph, it can cover an enormous amount of ground and from an excellent vantage point that can hear potential victims and communicate with them, rather than flying over at several hundred feet above at 80-100mph. http://www.coloradospringsparagliding.com is a dealer with Parajet Paramotors. Parajet just outfitted the Palm Beach Police department with several of these for exactly those reasons. The other benefit is that you can fully train and equip one person for S&R with the best equipment and training for less than the cost of a Jetski.($10k would fix you up real nice) Compared to Helicopters and their incredible cost of maintenance and airplanes, this is a very inexpensive way to put life savers in the air.

  • Ari Armstrong

    Billll wrote April 21, 2012:
    At the Robotics show last weekend there was enough talent in the room to design and assemble a semi-autonomous drone with IR and conventional imaging capability, Internet access, and whatever else might seem expeditious. Communications with a closely following vehicle with several observers on board might be more practical than going on line, though.