Why Drones Are the Future of Outdoor Search and Rescue
If you get lost or injured in the woods these days, aid might come from above—in the form of small-propeller drones that are revolutionizing SAR and saving lives
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“Hi,” Barbara Garrett said, phone to her ear. “I’m with a partner, and we’re up in the mountains and have no way down.”
“OK,” the 911 operator said.
“I don’t know. We thought we were on a trail, but we’re way up high and—I don’t know. We’ve been climbing and climbing and climbing, and I can’t even find a trail to go down.”
“OK. Do you know what trail you’re on?”
“Well…” Then she began to explain.
Garrett was 74. At 2 P.M. on April 3, 2020, she and her hiking partner, 63-year-old David Burgin, had left a parking lot at the city limits of Ogden, Utah, and hiked several miles on the Indian Trail into the Wasatch Mountains. During the return hike in the evening, Garrett started getting nervous. She thought they’d been heading the right way, but they were still going up, and were now on an unfamiliar slope where the trail was banded by cliffs. It didn’t make sense.
“I don’t think we’re on the trail anymore,” she told Burgin. He said, “Well, it might not be the trail, but it’s a trail, and it’s headed toward town.” The slope kept ramping up; to keep their footing, they had to tug on roots and rocks, with Burgin telling Garrett, “Come on. You can do it.” Finally, they came to a narrow ledge that ran above a cliff tall enough to injure her if she fell off. For the first time in the four years she’d been hiking with Burgin, Garrett was scared.
They’d met while hiking, back in 2017. He’d taken her picture at sunset, on top of the Ogden Canyon Overlook Trail, and they’d chatted all the way down like a couple of high schoolers. After saying goodbye, Garrett started walking toward her Dodge Caravan but then turned around, walked back over, and gave Burgin a hug under the stars. It was such a great day.
This was the worst day. They’d crossed the ledge, scrambled up more steep terrain, and were now stuck on a flat perch. The sun dropped behind the ridgeline. The temperature was in the forties, and it would soon be dark. They were at 6,000 feet.
“OK, all right,” the dispatcher said. “So I’m trying to see where the map is pinging you. It’s not a very good reading.”
“Oh, I’m kind of hiding behind a rock. You mean you can find my cell phone?”
“Yeah. It’s telling me that you’re possibly by Ogden Canyon, but it’s very far. Give me one second, OK?”
Garrett heard typing. Then the dispatcher connected her to a sheriff’s deputy who didn’t seem to understand her fear or fatigue, because he said, “While you got a little bit of daylight, just start working your way down, and I’ll come up and then try to find you.”
“Well…” Garrett sighed.
“Let me get your phone number.”
“Oh, my gosh.” Garrett knew they were in danger. What she didn’t know was that an uncommon kind of rescuer would soon be hitting the mountains to search for them.