A Florida hiker who had been lost was found on Friday, thanks to an aerial drone that was deployed by Polk County Fire Rescue. Around 12:46 p.m., Polk County Fire got a call saying that a hiker was in trouble at Tigers Creek Preserve in Bartow. After receiving a call about someone stranded on a rural walking trail, fire rescue officials arrived and launched an aerial drone to help with the search.
Polk’s drone program started in 2019. They conduct various missions for search and rescue, deploying HAZMAT teams, and assessing storm damage at major disaster scenes. “Our drone program is essential to the commitment of the department’s 21st Century all-hazards preparedness,” explained Fire Chief Dr. Hezedean Smith.
The drone, which takes an aerial view through specialized cameras, allowed fire rescue officials to locate the hiker from above. This is something ground crews could not do. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) like the one used to save the hiker have been in mainstream use for some time. They are appealing because they are small, require no crew, and are less expensive than traditional aircraft. UAVs can be used for search and rescue operations and aerial patrols.
Drones like the one used to rescue the hiker have been in use for some time
UAVs carrying camera systems are excellent for surveillance. They can identify license plates, read thermal images, and use radio equipment and other sensors. The majority of law enforcement UAVs cannot cause physical harm to their target. However, some documents obtained by digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation show that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection would arm their drones with “non-lethal weapons designed to immobilize” people if necessary.
Over a dozen law enforcement agencies in the United States had applied for UAV permits by March 2013. By 2016, that number had increased to 167 police and fire departments purchasing unmanned aerial vehicles.
Of course, unwanted surveillance is a concern with drones. Activists organizations have expressed privacy concerns over law enforcement use of UAVs for surveillance purposes. In 2018, Chinese drone manufacturer DJI had 74% of the global civil market share. There’s no other company accounting for more than 5%, and $11 billion in forecast sales. In 2020, increased scrutiny led the US Interior Department to ground its fleet of DJI drones while prohibiting federal funds from being used to purchase foreign made UAVs.
Compared to the military UAV market, the civil one is relatively new. And yet companies are springing up in countries across the globe. Many early stage startups have received funding from investors or government agencies. For example, in the US private entities offer online and in-person training programs for both recreational and commercial UAV use; while universities offer research and training degrees specific to this burgeoning field.