The Royal Canadian Mounted Police who responded to a car accident in May had a dilemma. The victim who had placed the call was nowhere to be found.
They weren't successful canvassing the area on the ground, but in this case, the Mounties also had another tool: They put an unmanned aerial vehicle, a Draganflyer X4-ES, to the sky to look for telltale infrared signatures.
"To my knowledge, it’s the very first case of a person being found alive by a UAV," says Staff Sergeant Dave Domoney. "He was curled up underneath a tree in a snow bank, two miles from the original accident site." The victim had wandered after suffering brain damage. Once found, he was sent to the hospital and survived.
Today—in the public’s eye at least—drones are often thought of as killing machines, but drones are now being tapped as "eyes in the sky" in settings where they can also save people’s lives. NASA, for example, is now using spare military drones to give better hurricane warnings, and the Chinese government dispatched the vehicles to an earthquake-hit region in April. Even human rights organizations are starting to consider using them to monitor abuses.
"I know in the United States there’s really not a story yet that compares—that you can kind of directly say that a person is alive today because that UAV is in the sky," says Benjamin Miller, program director for the sheriff’s office of Mesa County, Colorado, one of the earliest U.S. police departments to experiment with the technology. "I think maybe 2014 is the year that will change. We have the people and the equipment. Everything is in place.
So far stringent FAA regulations and the public’s concerns about privacy has limited their use. Earlier this year during the height of massive flooding in Colorado this year, the company Falcon UAV had been coordinating with local authorities to give mapping assistance, but was soon ordered to ground their vehicles.
In the future, we might see drones saving lives in new ways—especially as they become useful tools for transporting medical equipment to remote locations. However, to realize many of these visions at a large-scale, drones will need to become easier to deploy—and that means proving their worth in the public’s eye and addressing worries about privacy.
"To say that drone technology is going to be ubiquitous is an understatement," says Gene Robinson, president of RP SearchServices, a nonprofit organizations that has deployed drones to assist in everything from the infamous Caylee Anthony missing person case in Florida to successfully helping Mexican authorities track down a human trafficking ring in Tijuana. "It is such a game-changer, and that’s why people will naturally see it as an intrusion," he says.