Drones on the Lookout for Missing Grand Canyon Hikers

There’s a new niche for drones in Grand Canyon National Park: search and rescue.

A search effort has been underway for two hikers since they were swept into a Colorado River tributary on April 19th:  Lou Ann Merrell, wife of the Merrell hiking boot company’s founder, and her 14-year-old step-grandson, Jackson Standefer. When traditional searching turned up only a backpack with photos of the two, the park’s five drones and four certified operators were brought in to assist, supported by specialists flown in by Standefer’s family with a military-grade Sky Ranger drone to put additional eyes in the sky.

The week-long search has since been scaled back as both families continue “praying for a miracle,” per a statement made to press.

Although the outcome of the search has proven discouraging, the incident nonetheless demonstrates the role drones can play in present and future life-saving efforts at Grand Canyon and other national parks. In spite of standing bans on recreational hobby drones in most parks, rangers have singled out the tiny aircraft as valuable resources for tracking the injured and lost. Grand Canyon National Park alone encompasses some 2,000 square miles and welcomed 6 million visitors in 2016. That year saw approximately 1200 medical emergencies and 293 search-and-rescue efforts with 17 fatalities, as reported by the Associated Press.

Compared to manned helicopters, drones are far less expensive but can still survey large tracts of land in very little time. Because they fly without pilots or crew, they allow the gathering of aerial information in situations too dangerous to approach with manned aircraft. For example, drones have seen increasing use in fire monitoring, including a successful 2015 effort to conduct infrared surveillance through a dense canopy of trees over the Paradise fire in Washington state’s Olympic National Park. Firefighters used this data to map the perimeters of the flames and determine where the heat was most intense.

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When drones aren’t flying directly over fires, braving hazardous canyon updrafts or skirting steep cliffs, they’re being put to work in other ways. As far back as 2010, drones proved useful in Haitian earthquake recovery efforts. Three years later, they were deployed in the aftermath of the typhoon in the Philippines. And in 2015, drones played a significant role in assisting rescue and relief workers following the destructive quake in Nepal.

While rescuers continue to search for Merrell and Standefer into the last week of April, authorities and officials at Grand Canyon and other national parks look ahead with the hope that drone assistance can help prevent such tragedies by speeding up search and rescue efforts, making parks safer with an effective tool to swiftly locate missing hikers.