Hiking Tech: SAR Drones

Hiking is a gloriously simple activity, but that doesn't mean that there isn't room for improvement. These five products, including waterproof cell phones and rescue-ready drones, could make you look at backpacking in a different light.

    Photo: Conservation Drones/Flickr

While drones are most notorious for their role in military conflict, they could be used for a more innocuous purpose: saving hikers' lives.

UAVs, or unmanned aerial vehicles, aren’t at that point yet, but a handful of sheriff’s offices around the country are testing the machines' limits for search and rescue missions.

Ben Miller, the unmanned aerial system program director for Mesa County Sheriff’s Office, doesn’t think the drones will replace SAR volunteers or real helicopters anytime soon, but the technology offers an inexpensive alternative to current search methods. And for agencies strapped for cash, a UAV that can fly for a fraction of the cost means more resources devoted to finding the missing hiker.

Even though they’re (relatively) inexpensive, the drones have limited flight times—Mesa County’s fixed-wing Falcon hasn’t found a person yet during the six SAR missions it’s participated in— and there’s also the maze of FAA permits would-be drone pilots must navigate. Miller calls the process, which took more than 18 months, “a complete mess.”

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