They’re here: Search and rescue drone registered in the county

Retired Charlottesville fire chief Charles Werner, a longtime drone hobbyist, became interested in using them for search and rescue purposes after seeing them used to look for missing person Hannah Graham in 2014. Photo: Eze Amos Retired Charlottesville fire chief Charles Werner, a longtime drone hobbyist, became interested in using them for search and rescue purposes after seeing them used to look for missing person Hannah Graham in 2014. Photo: Eze Amos

Flying drones is no longer just for hobbyists in Albemarle. Earlier this month, the county was gifted a DJI Phantom 3—its first unmanned aircraft system for search and rescue purposes.

David King, who donated the drone, is a founder of King Family Vineyards, a longtime pilot and attorney, and a current search and rescue team member and reserve deputy with the Albemarle Sheriff’s Office. He and a team of those working to incorporate this new technology locally have practiced flying and run missing person simulations on his farm in Crozet.

Though drone users don’t need the county’s permission to use their aircrafts, for the Sheriff’s Office to routinely use unmanned aerial systems, they must be owned by the county and registered with the Federal Aviation Administration. King’s gift made that possible, says Board of Supervisors Chair Liz Palmer.

King was at a 2015 legal conference in Wise, Virginia, in which drones were discussed, and “it became clear to me that it was an emerging technology that would be very useful to the people who do the [searching],” he says. He immediately became interested in pursuing them. “The only purpose of this is to give the troops on the ground—the real heroes—a useful tool,” he says. “It’s not a silver wbullet, it’s only to help them do their job.”

Charles Werner, an unmanned aircraft systems adviser for the state and former city fire chief, also has been a major player in introducing this technology in our area. As a hobbyist, he has owned a drone for years, but he became interested in its ability to aid in search and rescue missions when Hannah Graham went missing in 2014. Though she was not located by an aircraft, he said it potentially reduced search time by thousands of hours.

“It revealed the value that could be benefited from searching hundreds, if not thousands, of acres of land,” he says. After retiring, he joined the search and rescue team.

But he acknowledges there are concerns with the technology.

“We’re trying to be very diligent in the issue of privacy,” Werner says. “Because of the concerns of being spied on, that’s something we, at all costs, are trying to steer away from.”

He says the drones will not be used for law enforcement or surveillance, but he does intend to use them to provide situational awareness in the instance of a natural disaster or major flood when it would be too dangerous to put a human in a boat. “It immediately gives you the ability to see the lay of the land,” Werner adds.

Around 80 percent of missing people are found within two miles of where they were lost, according to Werner. From the air, a drone can cover that distance quickly, even searching mountains or rough terrain that humans can’t access.

Says Werner, “If you have a situation where you have a lost child near a body of water, it becomes paramount.” In simulations his team did at King Family Vineyards, Werner says the lost children they were searching for were often found within two minutes.

“I think during our experimentation, we validated that it’s going to have a huge impact on how much we’re able to see and the areas we’re able to cover,” he says.

Also using King’s farm for practice are students at Piedmont Virginia Community College, where some of the first courses in the country are now being offered to certify search and rescue responders in operating drones.

Similarly, U.S. senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine announced last week that the National Science Foundation awarded the Old Dominion University Research Foundation almost $1 million for the purpose of advancing drone technology training in local colleges.

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