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After a lot of negative buzz for interfering with wildfire operations, drones might soon have a place in another type of emergency response: search and rescue.
"In the emergency world, the interest in drones is swelling right now," said Joe Dougherty, spokesman for the Utah Division of Emergency Management. While Dougherty attended an annual, statewide public information conference in St. George this week, first responders were asking a lot of questions about drones' potential. "Agencies are looking at, 'How can we make this work?' "
In fact, the Utah County Sheriff's Office is getting ready to buy one. The office has already secured funding to purchase a drone, and is currently investigating which model would best suit its needs.
Sheriff's Sgt. Spencer Cannon, who spent five years in search and rescue, can easily envision "circumstances where it would be a very handy tool."
Heavy clouds sometimes make it unsafe for the sheriff's office helicopter or fixed-wing planes to fly around a mountain, but a drone can go up there without that kind of risk. Even on a clear day, a drone can get eyes on a hard-to-reach area that would take a ground team hours to hike to and assess the situation, Cannon said.
"You see drones a lot more in the news, for good and bad reasons," Cannon said.
The sergeant noted that a fire-suppression plane had to temporarily abandon fighting a wildfire near Deer Creek last month because someone's drone was flying in the area. The interference was just one of more than a dozen like it around the country this year, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
But when it comes to finding people, "it's very, very interesting in the uses [drones] can be put to," Cannon said.
The unmanned fliers are a lot less expensive than sending in a helicopter, too. A Blackhawk helicopter costs $4,000 an hour to use for firefighting, or search and rescue operations, Dougherty said.
"Sometimes it's necessary to make that expense," Dougherty added. "But if it was just for getting aerial imaging, why not use [a drone]?"
Drones can also use thermal imaging to find people more easily at night than the human eye can, Dougherty said.
With such an idea in mind, the Utah Drone Imaging company announced this week that it hopes to mount an infrared camera on a drone to aid search and rescues, on a volunteer basis. The company launched a Kickstarter campaign this week to fund the project.
The Utah Division of Emergency Management has been using its drone to document disasters like the recent Hildale flood and last year's North Salt Lake landslide.
But with drones exploding in popularity among businesses and hobbyists the division is looking into whether it can create a network of "good, professional, safe" volunteer operators who can help during certain emergencies, Dougherty said.
That plan, though, is still "in its infancy," he added.