UAS pilot reflects on lessons learned from Texas search

By Patrick C. Miller | September 18, 2014

Although the use of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in the search for a missing Texas woman failed to locate her, UAS pilot Gene Robinson believes much was learned from the experience.

The Plano, Texas, Police Department began searching for Christina Morris, 23, on Sept. 2 after she was reported missing. She was last seen in surveillance camera video early the morning of Aug. 30 while walking in a parking garage with a friend.

Robinson, who’s certified to fly the MLB Super Bat III UAV for an ongoing National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) wildfire research project in Texas, spent three days between Sept. 11 and Sept. 15 flying a five-square-mile area of Plano looking for Morris.

“The only thing I’m not satisfied with is that we did not locate Christina,” said Robinson, who flew the NIST UAV under an emergency certificate of authorization (COA) issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Sept. 10. Other than one day of stormy weather that prevented flight operations, he deemed the mission “flawless.”

On Sept. 15, Houston-based Texas Equusearch, which coordinated the search with Plano police, said it was suspending—not terminating—the search for Morris until police gather more credible or significant information.

“We will come back again if the police determine that there’s another area they need searched,” Robinson said.

A three-person NIST team led by Robinson spent hours analyzing high-resolution photos shot from the UAV of areas police asked them to search. Team members—called “squints”—are specially trained to spot objects that shouldn’t be in the photos.

“This is not our first rodeo,” Robinson related. “This is one of the best search and rescue teams you’ll ever see flying unmanned aircraft. It’s not like we just went out and bought a DJI Phantom and went searching.”

And, he added, “There’s a science to searching. The fact that we scrubbed the area as thoroughly as we did tells the police that we know where she (Morris) is not at this point.”

Robinson noted that during the mission, all takeoffs and landings were executed without mishap, the areas searched were covered 100 percent and there were no emergency situations. He also said they decided not to use the UAV to search two congested urban areas because of safety concerns.

Texas Equusearch is a nationally known volunteer organization that’s been involved in high-profile searches for missing people. It also took the FAA to court after the agency ordered it to stop using UAS to conduct searches.

“When there was an issue with Texas Equusearch earlier in the year, it was because they had not tried to apply for an emergency certificate of authorization,” said FAA spokesperson Les Dorr. “They were simply going out and flying. That was the reason we told them to stop.”

The case was dismissed in July when a federal appeals court ruled that the FAA’s order “did not represent the consummation of the agency's decision-making process, nor did it give rise to any legal consequences.”

Robinson, who’s worked with Texas Equusearch for 10 years, founded his own charitable organization—RP Search Services—for the purpose of using UAS to conduct search and rescue operations. He’s also had differences with the FAA.

“We still disagree with whether they actually have a regulation they can apply to this particular operation,” Robinson explained. “We’re willing to work within whatever confines they want us to work in as long as we can get out there and do this good work.”

Robinson owns RP Flight Systems Inc., manufacturer of the Spectra small unmanned aircraft. He wrote a COA application for a country government, one of the first approved by the FAA. He’s also the author of “First to Deploy, Unmanned Aircraft for SAR & Law Enforcement,” a primer for agencies exploring the use of UAS.

Despite past disagreements, Robinson praised the FAA for granting the emergency COA in a timely manner.

“Their response was stellar,” Robinson said. “It took them less than 24 hours. I’m just delighted that it happened. I can’t say enough about their participation and doing what they did to get us in the air.”

Dorr said the FAA hasn’t received many requests for emergency COA’s. They’re usually issued “within hours” when they meet three criteria, which are:

•           A situation in which there is distress or urgency and there is an extreme possibility of a loss of life;

•           Manned flight operations cannot be conducted efficiently;

•           The proposed UAS is operating under a current approved COA for a different purpose or location.

“They were requesting the COA under the auspices of NIST, which had an existing COA,” Dorr explained. “We were able to grant it relatively quickly. It has to be an existing COA that we can issue the emergency COA under.”