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SOS! The FAA Gives the Go-Ahead for Emergency Rescue Company to Use Drones

A Maine-based search and rescue company is the first of its kind to win FAA approval to experiment with drones

An unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) / drone used for aerial surveillance is flying in the air. (© Erik Tham/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Soon, hikers lost in the backwoods of Maine might find their way home with the help of a drone. Earlier this month, Down East Emergency Medical Institute became the first civilian rescue organization to get the go-ahead from the FAA to use drones in search and rescue missions.

Down East, a non-profit that specializes in improving evacuation techniques in New England, hopes the drones will help rescue teams find people in places where helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft can’t reach. As director Richard Bowie told Dawn Gagnon of the Bangor Daily News, the new drones could provide rescuers with more accurate and up-to-the-minute information than they have had in the past. Gagnon writes:

The drones’ digital imagery will be live streamed, unlike with the airplane, which must land before sending data.

“It gives us better access to the data faster,” [Richard Bowie] said.

The ability to use drones also will provide a means for communicating with lost or injured people through a speaker system because electric engines on drones are so quiet, Bowie said.

Perhaps equally intriguing is that the larger of DEEMI’s drones can carry payloads of up to 12 pounds, which could contain such life-saving deliveries as cellphones or radios, food, space blankets and lighters to start fires, to name a few, Bowie said.

As required by the FAA, Down East is currently training licensed pilots to operate the new drones, which can be controlled by a pilot and a cameraman from a smartphone, iPad or laptop. The company is also outfitting the drones with strobe lights and a high-visibility paint job: white, red and yellow, like the rest of Down East’s fleet, which includes a helicopter, a propeller plane, several all-terrain vehicles and a K9 unit.

Down East doesn't get free reign of the skies though. The FAA exemption listed 31 specific regulations for the drones' use. For instance, Down East can only use the VK–FF–X4 Multirotor and VK-Ranger EX–SAR Fixed Wing drones that they already own, and they can use them strictly for rescue operations alone. The FAA has also stipulated how fast the drones are allowed to go (no more than 100 miles per hour) and how high up they can fly (no more than 400 feet). Also, Down East is only allowed to deploy the drones during the daytime and under visual meteorological conditions (in other words, if you can’t fly a plane, you can’t fly a drone).

Regardless of these limitations, Richard Bowie is excited for the drones’ promise — as he tells Gagnon, “the great thing is it will save lives.”

h/t Bangor Daily News

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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