Sunday, 13 April 2014

Search teams that rely on drones could run afoul of FAA

Texas EquuSearch relies mostly on horseback and all-terrain vehicles to search rough terrain. But it also employs 4-pound aerial drones to survey the ground with digital cameras.

Those drones were not used when the group surveyed an area of about four square miles near James Stephens’ residence Saturday, said Ray Ortiz, chief of detectives for the Vernon sheriff’s office. Nor was Stephens was found.

If the Texas group had used the drones, it could have run afoul of the federal government.

Using the drones in their search for Stephens would have violated a Federal Aviation Administration order not to fly the unmanned aircraft.

Texas EquuSearch has used drones since 2005 to locate 11 bodies, including those of a Houston man floating in Buffalo Bayou and a 2-year-old boy in Liberty County, said Tim Miller, its founder. In all, the group — which provides its services to families free of charge — has been involved in more than 1,350 searches in 42 states and eight foreign countries. Its help in the search for Stephens came at the request of his family.

“The bottom line is they won’t let us fly, and that drone has been so very valuable on so many searches,” Miller said. “When someone disappears, time is of the essence and it saves us a lot of time. And it’s very inexpensive.”

Brendan Schulman, a New York attorney representing Texas EquuSearch, said the FAA ordered the volunteer group to halt its use of drones Feb. 21. Schulman has asked the FAA to reverse the ban and let the Houston area group operate legally by April 16. If not, it plans a federal court challenge.

EquuSearch has avoided using drones since the FAA asked it to stop, Schulman said, but an emergency would force a difficult decision. “We hope the FAA will do the right thing in the next few days so we aren’t continuing to wait on a determination of legality.”

In Washington, an FAA spokesman would not speculate on what action might follow if EquuSearch flies its drones. “We hope they abide by our request to stop unauthorized operations.”

The agency noted that it has given emergency approval to use drones for relief work in natural disasters and search-and-rescue operations, but said a group such as Texas EquuSearch must be sponsored by a governmental agency that already has FAA permission to fly a drone. “We are not aware that any government entity with an existing certificate of authority has applied for an emergency naming Texas EquuSearch as its contractor,” the FAA said, adding that the process could take as little as a few hours.

Schulman and Miller said the FAA process of operating under another agency’s certificate is difficult and time-consuming. “I don’t care if it’s a couple of hours,” said Miller. “If we have a missing child or even an adult out there, a couple of hours is a matter of life or death.”

EquuSearch is being supported by U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, who has sponsored federal legislation that would govern the use of drones by law enforcement and others to protect privacy rights. “The big issue is the FAA should not be in the business of deciding who can get a drone and who can use a drone. They are making the decisions based on their own opinions.”

The FAA’s long delay in developing rules for drone operation has frustrated many users, who note the technology is evolving much faster than the government can set out rules for their use.

“Texas EquuSearch represents one of the many beneficial uses” of drones in search-and-rescue operations, said Melanie Hinton, communications director with the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. “This latest development further underscores the need for the FAA to immediately begin its long-delayed rule making to establish a regulatory framework for (drone) technology.”

The drones proved invaluable in EquuSearch’s effort to locate the body of Devon Davis, a 2-year-old who went missing from his home in rural Liberty County in April 2012.

“We had hundreds of searchers out there for about five days, including the FBI, the Texas Rangers, Houston Police Department and all the volunteer fire departments in Liberty County,” Liberty sheriff’s Capt. Ken DeFoor said. “We were about 30 minutes away from closing down the search on the fifth day when we launched a drone.” Fifteen minutes later, DeFoor said, the drone spotted a red dot in the weed-choked waters. Searchers recovered the body of the boy, who was wearing a red shirt when he wandered from home.

“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,” DeFoor said. “To me, it’s illogical and it makes no sense.”

Sunday 13 April 2014


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