Researcher: Drones might find lost hikers

New drone technology developed by the University of Colorado could help find lost hikers or track wildlife using radio technology, though local Search and Rescue volunteers say that the process is still complicated for real-life application.

University research developed an advance drone “swarming” technology that allows a single operator to control multiple aircraft, allowing drones to zero in on moving radio beacons, according to Associate Professor Eric Frew.

The study research was made possible by a first-ever approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct flights with a single pilot managing multiple aircraft.

“This new approval and new capability allows CU-Boulder to continue its leading role in the development of autonomous unmanned aircraft systems,” Frew said in a statement. “Future drones will be able to fly autonomously, with minimal human oversight, by cooperating with other aircraft to perform a wide variety of missions safely and efficiently.”

Ben Miller, who founded and volunteers for the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office unmanned aircraft team and works in the drone industry, said using drones in search and rescue operations can sometimes be like looking for a needle in a haystack with low probability of detecting missing people — especially since most public safety drones have a 30-minute battery capacity.

Getting permission from the FAA also poses a significant challenge, Miller said — local law enforcement typically uses drone technology in specific cases involving significant crime for that reason.

But being able to track someone’s cellphone signal with a drone would be huge, Miller said.

“Now you’ve improved those numbers (for rescues) significantly,” Miller said. “It’s the ability to obtain technology that can track a cell signal that’s buried in an avalanche or someone who is lost hunting.”

Miller said it’s not the drones themselves that are the key to improving search and rescue.

“It’s the technology that drones make mobile,” he said.


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