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Interdrone: Drones Saving Lives in Firefighting and Search and Rescue

(Originally published on Blogcritics.org)

When time is of the essence and lives are at stake, drones can make all the difference. This was the conclusion of men who have made a commitment to save the lives of others. They sat down at Interdrone, the International Drone Conference in Las Vegas, Sep-9-11, to share rescue techniques. The panel, “Saving Lives: Firefighting and Search and Rescue Tactics” was led by custom drone builder Kerry Garrison.

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Jim Bowers, left, and Gene Robinson coordinate the efforts of volunteers to help fly rescue missions

Panelists included Jim Bowers, founder of SWARM  (Search With Aerial RC Multi-Rotor) a network of over 3,000 volunteer drone pilots dedicated to finding missing persons; Gene Robinson, president of the non-profit RPSearch Services, who has been flying rescue missions since 2005; Joe Talley, an Army Special Ops veteran and first responder, who is a strong advocate for use of drones; and, David Bowen, a Senior Analyst at Measure for operational planning for disaster response.

Garrison asked the panelists to explain their interests and concerns with drone technology.

Talley, who has written about safety and security for Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, ABC News, and most major military journals, identified his personal mission as facilitating the use of drone technology “…in a system that doesn’t understand it yet.”

Robinson recalled the Memorial Day floods in Wimberly, Texas. “We really discovered what drones could do. They got life preservers to people stuck in the middle of rivers. They carried lines across impassable terrain to restore power to eighty homes,” he said.

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During this summer’s Wimberly, Texas, floods drones where used to get life preservers to people and to restore power

Robinson continued, “We had a meeting last week in Corpus Christi and in the next 30 to 40 days we will start gathering info from stakeholders so we can start a credentialing service. People will be able to show a card that says you know how to apply your skills. In emergencies you could be contacted by text and be flying a piece of state equipment in less than an hour.”

Bowers described his SWARM network. “These people are not just ‘maybe I’ll help’,” he said. “They are committed to drop everything when they get a call and provide assistance in finding missing persons at no cost to the families.”

Despite the benefits of drone technology to search and rescue, the panelists saw public perception of drones and efforts by local governments to restrict their use as the biggest roadblocks.

Talley gave an example. “The Los Angeles City Attorney’s office is looking to see how they ‘can take a bite out of drones’. That’s their words. They want to make it a misdemeanor to operate a drone recklessly. I think what they are really worried about is movie stars getting filmed from the sky over their properties.”

Bowen pointed out that cities really have no authority to do this as the FAA controls the sky from “the blade of grass, up”.

Garrison asked the panel what law enforcement and fire fighters needed to do to clear the way for use of drone technology.

“Educate and demonstrate,” were Bowers recommendations. “Most people are so gun shy, they hear the word drone and they head for the hills.”

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Joe Talley, an Army Special Ops veteran and first responder, advocates for the use of drones

Robinson concurred. “We have to work on public perception first,” he argued. “We need to dispel the image that when a drone flies over that it’s a predator bee with hellfire missiles hanging from it. We want people to look up and think, ‘That’s keeping me safe’, not, ‘Hey, my privacy is being invaded.’”

The panel focused in on three areas that they believed could help with public perception: transparency, usage policies, and press relations.

Robinson pointed to police logs printed in local newspapers as one method to achieve some transparency. “They can show that drones are doing some good in a community.”

Garrison asked about official usage policies. Bowen said that they must define the drone’s purpose and what happens to the data they collect. “You must clearly describe situations in which drones can be used,” he said, “such as in exigent circumstances, emergencies, police chases, or at crime scenes. This puts the public at ease.”

Garrison asked Bowers if the SWARM network members were encouraged to speak with the press. “Absolutely,” Bowers said. “The media is attracted to drones like bees to honey.”

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Thermal cameras on drones can spot people in the dark

Robinson urged some caution. “Make sure you are not talking to the media if there is already an official point of contact such as a PIO,” he said.

Talley also said that it was important for volunteers to always follow the lead of the agency they were helping.

Bowen said he was optimistic. “The FAA has really started moving faster than it has in years and when you get more stories in the media about the benefits drones are providing, the more the public will see these as forces for good.”

Garrison concluded with, “Public perception changes rapidly when people’s lives are being saved.”

In the video below, Bowers discusses types of drones and the origin of SWARM.

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