With a newly granted Section 333 exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the Down East Emergency Medicine Institute (DEEMI), a nonprofit search-and-rescue organization, is now adding unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to its fleet of life-saving aircraft.
Through the FAA approval, DEEMI – which is based in Maine and conducts searches throughout New England – can operate a VK-FF-X4 multi-rotor quadcopter and a VK-Ranger EX-SAR fixed-wing UAV from Viking UAS.
The commercial exemption marks the first of its kind to a search-and-rescue organization. LowCountry RC Corp. recently received a Section 333 exemption for, according to the FAA, “research and development of economic platforms” that include search-and-rescue, but DEEMI is authorized to incorporate UAVs into its ongoing operations.
Richard Bowie, DEEMI’s director of operations and a longtime veteran of the emergency medical services field, tells Unmanned Aerial Online that the drones are the “latest evolution” of the organization’s imaging systems.
The fixed-wing UAV, with a wingspan of nearly six-and-a-half feet, can fly for over an hour and will be used to search large areas of land. The rugged, eight-pound quadcopter, which is a few feet wide, Bowie says, also boasts an impressive flight endurance of 42 minutes.
DEEMI, which was founded in 1991, deployed its first helicopter in 1996 and has been using for the past 10 years what Bowie refers to as “high-resolution, low-level imaging” with various aircraft, including an Army Medevac UH-1V helicopter, a Piper Navajo PA-31 Panther and a Citabria Alaskan bush plane.
“The simple idea,” he explains, “was to use a low-flying aircraft and, much like bomb-damage assessment in World War II, take a series of high-resolution, ground-detailing images.”
He adds that oftentimes the team captures thousands of photos over just one search area. DEEMI then enlists the help of hundreds of volunteers, who review the imagery and look for clues that can lead to the discovery of a missing person.
The drones, Bowie says, will allow the rescue team to fly at an even lower level and, therefore, capture higher-resolution imagery to look for these clues, which are often minute and hard to come by.
For instance, Bowie explains that in a 2008 case of a missing college student in Vermont, the victim was located – following an extensive, months-long search with various other rescue teams – when Volunteer Imagery Analysts for Search and Rescue’s Chris Rowley spotted, from DEEMI’s manned aircraft-acquired images, white sneakers submerged in water.
Now, the drones, equipped with a Zeiss zoom lens of 12 megapixels or greater, can provide imagery with a resolution up to four or five times better while, at the same time, eliminating the human risk that comes with flying manned aircraft, he says.
Additionally, according to Bowie, the drones can be launched “over and over” with a simple battery change on-site, as opposed to manned aircraft’s having to leave a site to be refueled. Another added benefit, he says, is the drones’ ability to fly in more extreme weather conditions than can manned aircraft.
The operations, however, will be limited to the daytime hours, within the visual line of sight of the operator and under 400 feet in altitude, as prescribed in the FAA’s exemption.
Bowie admits that being able to conduct nighttime operations (using an infrared camera) would be helpful; however, even with the height restrictions, the exemption – along with the blanket Certificate of Waiver or Authorization – will still bring DEEMI ample opportunities for productive flights, he says.
The UAVs will be rolled out in just a few weeks – as soon as the pilots’ certification is complete, says Bowie, adding that the organization will initially have four pilots but plans to have seven available in the future.
The pilots will remotely operate the aircraft from a quiet, closed-off drone control station: a converted military box truck. Also, in conjunction with a drone, DEEMI, as it has done with other rescue missions, will drive a humvee to rapidly act on any target the drone may come across. Bowie refers to the humvee as “a receiving and analysis station that can go where no other vehicle can.”
He notes that the UAVs will not replace DEEMI’s current fleet of aircraft but, rather, will be complementary to operations while providing cost savings for the organization, which runs solely on donations.
Like the rest of DEEMI’s aircraft fleet, the drones will sport a vibrant red, yellow and white color scheme, which provides more than an aesthetic appeal – it makes the drones’ presence known, explains Bowie, adding that it also lessens any potential fear that the aircraft may incite.
After all, these are not spying machines, he says; they are life-saving machines.