Search teams test drones

Technology could aid in rescue missions

Many Tri-Cities residents will remember the desperate search for missing Douglas College student Joy Zhang last summer at Sasamat Lake.

The mentally challenged women had gotten separated from her classmates during a field trip to the Port Moody park last August and was missing for three days.

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Dozens of search and rescue volunteers combed the lake and trails looking for the 21-year-old.

While the rescue came to a successful conclusion with Zhang being found safely in a dense area around the lake, it's a call that could have been resolved quicker using the latest in drone technology, according to officials with Coquitlam Search and Rescue.

"We're always looking for some advantage," said Coquitlam SAR search manager Michael Coyle.

So on Saturday, a group of search and rescue teams from around the Lower Mainland, along with hobbyists, gathered at Eagle Mountain Park in Coquitlam to see the technology in action.

The drones are called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and in the not-so-distant future these flying machines could be helping to save lives.

The devices, which are about the size of a remote-controlled car, can fly in and out of areas, relaying real-time video and high-resolution images to a crew on the ground.

A company called North Guardian UAV Services Canada was in charge of the demo.

The UAVs on display can fly as far as 10 to 20 kilometres and operate on a battery for up to an hour at a time. They can also be modified to mount items, like a radio, to be dropped for individuals if needed.

North Guardian charges on a per-hour basis and provides a pilot and ground crew.

Coyle, who started researching the use of these devices last year, said the idea behind Saturday's demo was to bring SAR teams together to see how the UAVs would fit in with an actual search - whether the technology could let teams carry out tasks faster.

"We hope it does, and we're almost certain we'll be able to use it," he told the Tri-Cities NOW.

Currently, any help in the air during a search is done with helicopters, which can be expensive and not readily available.

In the case of the Zhang search, Coyle noted the team was given permission by provincial authorities to use a helicopter for two hours a day.

He said the UAVs could have been used for parts of the day when the helicopter wasn't available.

Neither search and rescue teams nor North Guardian see the drones replacing the use of helicopters, but rather supporting rescue efforts.

Jeff Howe, co-owner of the company, sees his machines as another set of eyes for SAR teams.

"What we ended up doing was looking at how we could do something that could support existing agencies on the ground," he said.

Though Howe was reluctant to provide rates, he did indicate using a UAV is significantly cheaper than a helicopter, which can cost in the four figures for an hour. He also said his team can get a UAV up in the air quicker than a manned helicopter.

But it isn't just SAR teams interested in the technology.

Representatives from the Coquitlam fire department were also at the demo.

Stu Aspinall, assistant fire chief with Coquitlam Fire & Rescue, said the drones could be used in a number of ways, including for calls to large structure fires and hazardous materials incidents.

The vehicles could be sent in to have a look, before crews are used.

UAVs could also be put to the test during an emergency in the tunnel of the yet-to-be-completed Evergreen Line.

"Really, it's unlimited. It's a new technology that we're having a look at, [to] see whether it's something we can apply or not," he said.

Though Aspinall said there are still questions about the technology, he's impressed with what he's seen so far.

"If this is another tool that will help make everybody safer and help us do our job safer then we're interested in looking at it," he said.

Coyle also said there are challenges that need to be worked out before a drone is pressed into action.

One example would be how the billing for the UAV service would be handled by Emergency Management BC, the organization that handles some search costs for SAR teams.

North Guardian is working with Transport Canada on the use of UAVs, and has been issued a special flight operation certificate for the area around Eagle Mountain Park for the rest of the year. Coyle said the team intends to hold various experiments and tests in the fall before putting any UAVs into service.

"We don't want to be stumbling in the middle of a search trying to figure this out," he said.

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