BACK IN MAY, Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) shared news that an unmanned aerial vehicle, a UAV, or in common parlance a drone, had helped save the life of a car accident victim. The driver’s car flipped and he was left injured in near freezing temperatures during a Saskatchewan night. Authorities executed a ground search followed by a manned aerial search without finding the victim. Later, a helicopter drone with an infrared sensor pinpointed the driver’s warm body. Firefighters reached him moments later and he soon received medical care. Headlines announced that this event may be the first time a drone saved a life. Zenon Dragan, president and founder of the Drag an fly Innovations Inc, the drone’s manufacturer, stated just that in a press release. The story, which was shared complete with the video footage taken by the drone, made the rounds on the web. US media outlets highlighted this positive spin on drones, a rarity as vocal opponents continue to link them to privacy invasion.

Teachable moment

 This story is timely and educational because its details present a valuable set of lessons about drones, location technologies, sensors and, frankly, dumb luck. Here are some key pearls to put this event, and the drone technology, in context:

• There is a process to search

 The first search effort involved a ground search and later a manned helicopter search using night vision goggles and high-power searchlights. Those failed to find the victim. Why? Perhaps because the search was started near where the car was found.

• Cell phone location determination (E911) matters

About an hour after the ground/manned aerial search began, the injured driver called 911 from his cell phone. Reports suggest he was disoriented and may have wandered some distance from the car. That might explain why he didn’t call until an hour or more after the accident. Dispatchers learned that the victim didn’t know where he was and that he was not wearing cold weather clothing. Response personnel determined the phone’s approximate coordinates (reports contradict one another about whether via GPS or network-based locating). Ground and air search continued near the phone’s coordinates, with no luck.

• Sensors are not just cameras

The drone was sent out next, starting a search at the cell phone’s last known location. The UAV, a Drag an flyer X4-ES, can carry three different sensors. Two are cameras, one for regular light, one for low light conditions; the third is a forward-looking infra-red (FLIR) heat sensor.

• Copters can hover

The UAV is a quadcopter, a helicopter with four rotors. It’s not clear if this form factor and its specification were particularly suited to this positive spin on drones, a rarity as vocal opponents continue to link them to privacy invasion.

• Access, training and experience matter

 A total of five RCMP officers had been trained to use the drone and held required licenses to fly it. The team had used the quadcopter, mostly for accident photo documentation and traffic analysis, for about a year. Why did the Saskatoon RCMP have a drone in the first place? It just so happens that Drag an fly Innovations is based in Saskatoon and the local force was an early tester.

• Continuing public education required

Comments on the story in the Canadian press made clear that at least some residents were not aware that Canadian responders not only had drones, but actively used them. Others were not aware that infrared cameras were legal.

Looking ahead It’s clear that citizens and lawmakers in Canada, the US and the rest of the world will need to hear more drone success stories as they create and update policies related to short and long term domestic and foreign use.