Search and Rescue Drones

In a first in western Canada, an infrared-equipped drone was used to rescue four people stranded in darkness, in waist-deep snow, on a recreational skiing mountain in British Columbia. It happened overnight Monday-Tuesday, with a DJI Matrice equipped with a FLIR Vue Pro camera operated by two men from a Kamloops company called Hummingbird Drones.

“We’ve been training with Kamloops Search and Rescue for well over a year,” co-founder and CEO Robert Atwood told TDC in a phone interview. “And the feeling of exhilaration was unlike anything either of us had every experienced – and we’ll likely remember for the rest of our lives.”

The Hummingbird Drones logo
The Hummingbird Drones logo

It was a happy ending, after a very tense period that started in the afternoon Monday. At approximately 3:00 pm Pacific Time, two groups of people decided to head off the beaten path to ski and snowboard in an area that was clearly marked out-of-bounds. It’s also an area where avalanche crews do not maintain the slopes, and can be dangerous.

But it’s also a bit of an optical illusion.

The area where the group chose to descend appears as though it leads back to the main village at the base of the resort. Instead, however, it heads down into an area that makes it nearly impossible to get back to the base.

“It’s very misleading. It actually leads to a ravine, which can be challenging for some of the best and fit people,” Cassidy Simpson of Kamloops Search and Rescue told CTV news.

Alpine Map West Bowl With Legend
Check out the top left of this map, beyond the “West Bowl” area. That’s apparently where the group went out of bounds. Image from Sun Peaks Resort:

There were two groups: Five skiers from one family, and two snowboarders. The snowboarders were reported missing around 4 pm, at which point Kamloops Search and Rescue got involved. Search manager Alan Hobler says the initial reconnaissance by the ski patrol raised red flags.

“They located the snowboard tracks,” Hobler tells TDC, “then saw five other tracks. So that was a huge level of concern for us, because we’ve got two known missing persons, and possibly another additional five.”

That’s not a good scenario – especially in avalanche country at night.

The Search and Rescue mission started to swing into action. But with daylight dwindling, Hobler knew the odds of finding the missing persons would be greatly enhanced with the assistance of an infrared-equipped drone. At around 630 pm, he called CEO Atwood and Hummingbird co-founder and CFO Richard Sullivan. The pair were a three-hour drive away in a city called Revelstoke. They were scheduled to do a day-long presentation at a high school the following morning.

But Hummingbird and Search and Rescue Kamloops had already been working together on a pilot program for more than a year – with the express purpose of using drones in Search and Rescue applications. Atwood and Sullivan didn’t think twice. They drove back to Kamloops, picked up their Matrice and monitor and other gear, and reached the site by about 10 pm.

Search and Rescue - Service By Hummingbird Drones
Search and Rescue is now one of the services offered by Hummingbird Drones – and it came in handy last night.

Soon after Hummingbird’s arrival, a group of three skiiers had been located by searchers. They told searchers the group had split up, and that four others were still out there in the black, in waist-deep snow. The Matrice took to the air. With a planned grid pattern, it didn’t take long for the FLIR to spot the warm subjects against the cold snow – despite the darkness.

One of the Hummingbird Drones two DJI Matrices. This one is not equipped, in this photo, with the FLIR Vue Pro infrared camera used in the mountain rescue
One of the Hummingbird Drones two DJI Matrices. This one is not equipped, in this photo, with the FLIR Vue Pro infrared camera used in the mountain rescue

“We found two subjects on our first flight, and then at 330 in the morning we helped locate another two people,” says Atwood.

In fact, ground teams were starting to be able to make sound contact. But hearing distant shouts in the woods is very different from accurately determining the location of those sounds.

“Because of the terrain, the sound echoes around a lot,” explains Alan Hobler. “The drone does a grid search, and they were able to locate the first party fairly quickly doing that. Once they located the first group they later located the second…they were able to advise the searchers as to where the last person was.”

Check out the dramatic FLIR video taken by the Matrice. You can even see that the rescuers are warmer (brighter) than the lost subject they locate.

What did all this prove?

“It shows it’s very effective,” says Hobler. “Certainly the drones shortened the search time and made it a lot easier for us.” In fact, he says under ideal circumstances a drone might have gone up before any searchers were dispatched to an area with an avalanche risk.

Search and Rescue Kamloops stock image
Search and Rescue Kamloops stock image

For the guys from the Hummingbird team, Search and Rescue is just the latest part of a much wider operation. In fact, their specialty is assisting with wildfire assessment and suppression, using proprietary software their team created and working closely with the BC wildfire service. Their software can detect hotspots, which can easily flare up, and also eliminate false positives to save time and direct resources more efficiently.

“We’ve worked a lot to develop our own software and integrate drone technology into the wildfire suppression space,” says Atwood. “Now it’s exciting because last night we became the first drone company in BC to locate a person in a search and rescue mission.”

And their drones of choice?

“We actually use all DJI products,” he says. “We have three Inspire Ones, and we have two DJI Matrices. The Matrices are our favorite and the most effective for what we do, because they provide a platform for us to develop on and build out functionality beyond the primary basic use case.”

For co-founder Sullivan, it was also an extraordinary night.

“Going out on Search and Rescue calls is always a nerve-wracking experience,” he says. “We’ll continue to process this the next few days. It was obviously an incredible moment – and an incredible memory.”

You can learn more about all the cool stuff Hummingbird Drones does here.

But it’s hard to top what they did last night. Congrats, guys.

(BTW, at 0400 they drove back to Revelstoke, had a cat-nap, and were at the high-school for their 0900 presentation – with quite a story to tell.)

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