Over the last several years, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in military operations has raised a new level of heated debate across the political spectrum. Use of drones by the Obama and Bush Administrations – especially in sovereign nations with which the U.S. is not at war – further raises the stakes over the moral implications of using the streamlined aircraft.
Stateside, however, search-and-rescue organizations – private and public – are finding more humanitarian uses for drones. Search-and-rescue operations over inaccessible, remote terrain or even out to sea, are ideally suited for drone use. In fact, using drones for S&R is not a new technology. In 2004, “Predator drones, commonly associated with military operations, were used in the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina,” according to a report in industry newsletter InsideGNSS. Over the past decade, government agencies have deployed S&R drones in the aftermath of hurricanes, tornados and even oil spills.
For private S&R organizations, however, the use of domestic rescue drone is being grounded by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In a letter issued in February, the FAA ordered Texas-based S&R group EquuSearch to cease using drones in its operations, calling any such operations illegal.
The federal agency maintains that all private organizations, even non-profit, volunteer groups like EquuSearch, must get approval for drone use and apply for an authorization certificate under the aegis of a government agency.
“I cannot understand the controversy going on about the use of drone aircraft for searching for lost children, dementia victims and the victims of foul play, when the FAA has no problem with people flying drones for sport,” Liberty County (Texas) Sheriff’s Capt. Ken DeFoor stated in a recent interview with the Houston Chronicle. “To me, it’s illogical and it makes no sense,” he added.
EquuSearch’s inability to deploy drones has become a literal matter of life and death. Last week, the group launched an S&R operation to find a missing Louisiana man – an operation that won’t include drones at least for now.
The group is appealing the FAA’s decision and is hopeful they will be flying again soon.