Looking to Save Lives

The story of Gene Robinson reveals the need to certify unmanned aerial vehicle applications for emergency situations and the difference between a professional UAV operator and a hobbyist.
By Patrick C. Miller | October 22, 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 a surveillance 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 wildfire research project in Texas, spent three days between Sept. 11 and 15 flying a 5-square-mile area of Plano looking for Morris.

“The only thing I’m not satisfied with is that we did not locate Christina,” says Robinson, who flew the NIST UAV under an emergency certificate of authorization (COA) issued by the Federal Aviation Administration on 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,” says Robinson.

A three-person NIST team led by Robinson spent hours analyzing high-resolution photos shot from a 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.

“We can take one of our aircraft, fly over an area and get high-resolution imagery, which we’ve got down to one centimeter (less than one-half inch) resolution,” Robinson says. “We can see a significant amount of detail in these images.”

The UAV takes images with a 24-megapixel camera. Robinson notes that a standard point-and-shoot camera shoots 16-megapixel images, and high-definition video is 5 megapixels.

Unlike an observer in a helicopter or airplane, the squints examine photos in the comfort of a darkened mobile command unit free of distractions. They can examine 800 photos in roughly two hours.

In another search in which Robinson was involved, a white speck in a photo turned out to be a tennis shoe. That simple discovery enabled searchers to find the remains of a man who had been missing for six months.

“Our philosophy on unmanned aircraft is that it is a force multiplier, a resource management tool and a safety tool,” Robinson explains. “We can do in a matter of hours what it takes a hundred searchers to do in a day.”

When an object of interest is spotted in a photo, a hasty team is given the GPS coordinates to inspect the area.

“That’s where the efficiency comes in,” Robinson says. “We need eyes on the ground to clear the area. It’s a very directed approach.”

In addition, it’s a much safer approach because the UAV can inspect areas from above that might contain dangers or hazards to humans, minimizing risks and liability issues.

“This is not our first rodeo,” Robinson says of the search for Morris. “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 adds, “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 notes 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 says 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,” says 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 explains. “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 county government, one of the first approved by the FAA. He was also the author of “First to Deploy, Unmanned Aircraft for SAR (search and rescue) & 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 says. “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 says the FAA hasn’t received many requests for emergency COAs, adding 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 explains. “We were able to grant it relatively quickly. It has to be an existing COA that we can issue the emergency COA under.”

Alexander Maranghides, a NIST principal investigator, says that in this case, the emergency COA was granted through a COA for the agency’s ongoing wildland urban interface research project in Texas. The NIST team flew the search mission at the request of the Plano Police Department as a regularly scheduled proficiency flight.

“NIST is not a search and rescue agency,” Maranghides says. “But given the planned deployment for our work, we were able on very short order to adapt our deployment and respond to meet this important need.”

Dorr stresses that the regulations preventing charitable organizations from operating UAVs for searches are not the FAA’s rules, but were passed by Congress in 2012.

“What they said is that if you are going to fly for a hobby or recreation, then you don’t need FAA authorization—although you do have to follow the rules specified in the law. For any other purpose, you need FAA authorization,” he explains.
“Regardless of who’s doing the flying, it would be difficult to say that doing a search for someone could be considered a hobby or for recreational purposes,” Dorr says of the FAA’s position on the issue.


Author: Patrick C. Miller
Staff Writer, UAS Magazine
[email protected]



How to receive a UAV certificate of authorization
By Emily Aasand

Le Sueur County became the first county in Minnesota to receive U.S. Federal Aviation Administration approval to fly unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to collect high-resolution aerial imagery.

Le Sueur County contracted with Tim Briggs, president of AeroLogix Consulting Inc. of New Prague, Minnesota.

“Being able to fly a small-scale UAV at a moment’s notice is a big advantage,” says Justin Lutterman, Le Sueur County geographic information systems manager. “If we can pinpoint specific areas that we want to fly, we’re hoping to use this to save money.”

Briggs comes from a background of military sensor operations. After retiring from the U.S. Navy where he was a sensor operator who flew various aircraft, Briggs began working for the U.S. Army on the contractor side of military programs creating geospatial information used for military purposes.

“With a lifelong interest in radio-controlled airplanes and the technology of imaging and creating geospatial imagery and processing everything that goes with that, I was looking to start my own business,” Briggs says. “I knew the technology was out there, that UAVs were capable of carrying cameras and the processing software was available commercially, so I kind of put all the pieces together.”

Under current FAA regulations, there was only one way for Briggs to start his own UAV business and that was to contract the services out to a government entity.

“After researching the laws, I realized I could do this under a contract style arrangement with a government entity, so I approached the county I lived in [Le Sueur], proposed what I wanted to do and what I could offer them, and found out that the service was really needed in the county,” says Briggs.

Briggs first proposed the idea to Lutterman and together they went to the county commissioners and eventually established a contract.

According to Lutterman, the county has a lot of use for the new technology.

“We’d be able to measure volume from gravel pits—how much volume of material has been taken out because that’s actually how we assess the property,” Lutterman says. “If there’s ever a new road, we’d be able to fly the corridor to try to plan it out to minimize costs. We’d also be able to use the aerial imagery for law enforcement, county assessors and appraisers and for real-estate.”

It took Briggs and the county nearly a year to receive a certificate of approval from the FAA.

“That legal process was pretty lengthy,” Briggs says.

Briggs and the county received about 97 percent of the airspace that they wanted, with a few provisions of not being able to operate within five miles of the airports and not operating over any of the densely populated towns, according to Briggs.

Briggs will be flying a four meter sailplane that he modified to accommodate the needs of his business. The UAV will have up to 45 minutes of endurance and include a camera internally for aerodynamic and recovery purposes.

“I’ve been working on modifying it all summer—the COA process and the building process kind of coincided,” said Briggs. “The airplane was pretty much completed as we got approval from the FAA and we started flying and testing it here just in the past couple weeks.”

The UAV has had three flying days and still needs modifications for launch and recovery. The next step is to test the parachute recovery system before adding the camera and actually capturing imagery.

“We’re about to do our first test of the parachute,” Briggs says.  “Next is taking pictures, but for now, I haven’t put the camera on until we’re comfortable with the parachute recovery system.”

“We’re excited about all of it,” Lutterman says. “We knew that this kind of technology was coming. I like the idea that it’s a local entity doing it, that way there’s more people to answer to, so I’m happy with how it’s working out on that end.”
Until the regulations change, Briggs hopes to repeat this process with adjoining counties in Minnesota.

“They’re already interested, they know what we’re doing and they want to see the products that we’re going to be creating,” Briggs says.  “As soon as we have demonstrable products, I plan on going to all of the adjoining counties and proposing a similar operation.”