Will Saunders
Up and away: members of Weber County Search and Rescue launching a drone (Will Saunders)

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.

Drone pilot Kyle Nordfors
Drone pilot Kyle Nordfors (Photo: Will Saunders)
Eli Whitman, a member of Weber County Search and Rescue
Eli Whitman, a member of Weber County Search and Rescue (Photo: Will Saunders)

Like many other species, humans evolved to save our own. We developed this impulse, probably, from caring for babies. Researchers believe that, some six million years ago, their crying and clinging stirred something in our hearts, prompting us to share in one another’s feelings.

This evolving empathy motivated early humans to help one another, research suggests, which was a good thing, since the world was a crazy place during the Ice Age. The climate was in flux, and disasters were common. Tribes that foraged together, hunted together, and ate together were more likely to survive. Often they had to migrate together, too, to find food, and this forced them into conflict with other tribes. When clubs would swing and spears would thrust, tribe members who fought on their own tended to die alone. Their DNA died with them. Working together against the threat of starvation and warfare nurtured bonds of altruism, which, researchers believe, helps explain why humans search for people who may be lost.

Throughout history, humans have tended to search for the missing in large groups, shouting, peering, listening, fanning out through wild country on foot. Often we have only a vague sense of where a lost person might be—even a cell-phone ping can be miles off the mark—but we scour the landscape, either on the ground or in an aircraft, until we locate them. The longer we search, the more likely a person is to die of exposure, and the more likely searchers are to face danger themselves: from avalanches, lightning strikes, helicopter crashes, rockslides, flash floods, or breaking an ankle in a remote location.

In the modern world, it’s been obvious for some time that small camera-and-light-equipped drones can help us find missing people and animals. Texas EquuSearch, a SAR team in Dickinson, Texas, has been searching for missing people with remote-controlled aircraft since 2005, well in advance of the federal regulations that now govern drone flight. Doug Thron, a cinematographer based in California, has made a name for himself by traveling the world and using the machines to find animals lost in the wake of natural disasters like hurricanes and wildfires. (This humanitarian side career is the subject of a documentary, Doug to the Rescue, that became available in June on a streaming service called CuriosityStream.)

In the search for Garrett and Burgin, the drone pilot dispatched was a 44-year-old local named Kyle Nordfors, who works with a SAR team run by the Weber County Sheriff’s Office. Shortly after Garrett’s 911 call, Kyle and his wife, Debbie, were in a pullout off Ogden Canyon Road with a corporal, Kyley Slater, who kept an eye on traffic as they set up the drone, a $3,800 Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual. It was no bigger than a shoebox. Debbie watched as Kyle fired it up and guided it into the air: four propellers buzzed to life, dust flew, and the drone went up, its red and green lights flashing in the dark.

The team executing a night launch (Video: Phil Hessler)

It’s impossible to say how many SAR teams currently use drones, because there’s no organization that collects that information from the country’s confounding array of federal, state, local, and tribal jurisdictions. The National Park Service says that last year it sent out SAR teams 2,992 times. There are currently 61 drone pilots trained to fly in the parks, though the Park Service hasn’t said how many times a drone has been used for SAR missions. The Mountain Rescue Association, comprising 106 teams throughout the U.S. and western Canada, estimates that 80 percent of its members have drone programs in various stages of development. Only a few years ago, that figure was closer to 20 percent. Kyle Nordfors has flown more than 50 missions since the Weber County Sheriff’s Office launched its drone program in 2019.

A team in Rutherford County, Tennessee, recently found a boy who got lost in the woods during a nighttime thunderstorm. The drone was equipped with a thermal-imaging camera that can detect infrared radiation. The boy lit up orange on the monitor.

In addition to thermal-imaging cameras, many drones that rescuers deploy also carry a powerful zoom lens, a blinding spotlight, and a battery with a flight time of about a half-hour. “Drones are a resource that provide you an extension of your sensory capabilities,” said David Forker, a veteran of a drone search and rescue program in Idaho Falls. Forker, who passed away several months after I interviewed him, spent nearly 30 years handling search dogs. He told me that while canines improve on our inferior sense of smell, drones enhance our sight, and they do it more safely, cheaply, and effectively than helicopters and airplanes.

When I spoke with him, Forker had recently participated in an exercise done with local police at dusk in a nearby town. An officer was told to run and hide. The drone pilot saw his tracks in hard-packed snow and bent grass, which eight other officers, searching on foot, hadn’t seen. All it took, says David Barker, the officer who played the fugitive, was a view from 30 feet above. “Things open up and it’s an entirely different perspective,” he says.

The earliest drones, like the Predator, were used in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The type of drone deployed by SAR teams is a peacetime product invented in large part by guys tinkering in garages and at dinner tables.

Chris Boyer, director of the National Association for Search and Rescue, a group made up of state agencies and volunteer first responders, says that drones are, in essence, automatic mapmakers. They give you a God’s-eye perspective on the land, allowing you to see above, across, and into a space without having to physically occupy it. “The drone solves the problem of walking to the top of the hill,” he told me.

We still have to walk to the tops of hills to rescue people who can’t walk down on their own, but with drones we don’t always need to search hill after hill on foot. “Drones don’t replace the ground search-and-rescue guys,” says Keenan Campbell, director of an emergency management office in rural Bureau County, Illinois. “We’ll always need boots on the ground. But the eye in the sky makes things so much easier.”

Drones aren’t right for every situation. Neil Van Dyke, search and rescue coordinator for the Vermont State Police, says that the dense brush and leafy trees common ­in his area can severely limit their vision and thermal-imaging capabilities. “We’ve been careful not to fall into the trap that this ­­­is the new shiny toy that is going to solve ­­all our problems,” he says.

You also have to pay up. Base models that many teams buy range from about $1,000 to $6,600, which is a big expense for volunteer groups with small budgets. (The Ogden team, which is mostly volunteer, is allocated $25,000 per year.) That’s one barrier to entry. Another is the need to train a rescuer to pilot a drone without violating the rules of the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates their use. But if a team has the money and expertise, rescuers are learning that on many calls the drone can save them time, which, in their field, can save a life.

The crew headed out on the search
Ground crews like this one head out once a drone has made contact. (Photo: Will Saunders)

The hillside above the pullout where Kyle launched his drone is rough going on foot. It rises steeply above the road ­for 2,500 feet, and in spring, slick patches of snow can be seen through the dark canopy of pine and fir trees. The Indian Trail traverses the slope; it’s narrow and in some sections exposed.

If Kyle was unable to find Garrett and Burgin with the drone, rescuers would have to search on foot in the dark—a slow and dangerous prospect. But all he knew about their location was this: two hikers had gotten off the trail. Cell phone pings placed them somewhere in Ogden Canyon, but that didn’t narrow it down much. As Debbie watched the drone climb into the night, she had two thoughts: I hope they’re OK, and I hope we can prove the drone’s value.

Kyle and his drone had become part of the team in an unlikely way. In November 2018, he met lieutenant Mark Horton, who oversees search and rescue through the Weber County Sheriff’s Office. Kyle had offered to help string a 150-foot American flag across a canyon on the edge of town to honor the mayor of North Ogden, a national guardsman who’d been killed earlier that month in Afghanistan. When he finished flying the line from one side to the other, he talked with Horton about joining search and rescue.

In the application he filed, Kyle said he’d been a Boy Scout and liked camping, which pretty much covered his outdoor skill set. He also mentioned he was a pilot for Alaska Airlines and FAA-certified to fly drones. In a follow-up interview, he realized that his lack of serious outdoor experience was a problem. He assumed he’d blown it.

Two nights later, he got a call from John Sohl, a member of the team. With Debbie listening on speakerphone, Sohl spent several minutes reviewing Kyle’s deficiencies. Then he switched gears. The team was interested in him because he was a pilot. We want to start an experimental drone unit, Sohl said. Will you lead it? Kyle said yes.

Kyle and Debbie did some research and bought a drone they thought was capable of the job, the Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual, which comes stock with a thermal-imaging camera. Soon they began going out on calls together, leaving behind their kids, who knew how to look after themselves when asked to. Kyle and Debbie had gotten married only three years earlier, merging two families from previous marriages. (They now have six kids in all.) Building the drone program was something new for them to do together, and they jokingly called themselves “the newlyweds.” Debbie bought Kyle his first drone for his birthday in 2018—a DJI Phantom 4 Pro that he used in his side business, aerial photography.

They saw so much potential in the drone, but convincing the 70-something SAR members could be difficult. Old hands can be slow to adopt new technologies, and Debbie worked hard to show colleagues that they weren’t trying to replace them with drones. Kyle thought some people saw him as a hobbyist, crowding their airspace with toys as a mere hobbyist.

They surprised a lot of people with the success of their first mission, in April 2019. Three out-of-towners had followed a trail up a cliff and gotten stuck near a gorge, at around 6,135 feet. The cell phone ping was inaccurate, so the search team could only guess their location. But in less than 20 minutes, Kyle and his drone found them on the south side of the gorge. He led rescuers to them with the drone, and that was that. “We went from being an experiment to an asset,” Kyle says. “Just in that one call-out.”

Reenacted scenes from the rescue of Barbara Garrett and David Burgin (Video: Phil Hessler)

What rescuers like about drones is the same thing that historically has made many of us fear them: they find people. The earliest drone most Americans remember was the Predator, which killed many people in the Middle East in the early 2000s. During the second Iraq War, Americans got an intimate look at a drone’s destructive power.

Then, in 2012, drones began coming home, and military contractors seeking to expand the market began selling them to police departments. Some saw military drones, police drones, and the hobbyist drones that followed as fundamentally the same thing: an invasion of privacy. In 2014, a firearms company released an ad in which a scowling man with tattooed arms blasts drones out of the sky with a silencer-equipped shotgun. They called him Johnny Dronehunter, the Defender of Privacy.

The type of drone deployed by SAR teams is really a peacetime product invented in large part by guys tinkering in garages and at dinner tables. Demand for smartphones drove innovation in the same kinds of hardware essential to drones, including gyroscopes (which measure rotation), magnetometers (cardinal direction), pressure sensors (altitude), and accelerometers (G-forces), making them smaller, cheaper, and more sophisticated.

By 2012, hobbyists could buy a flight controller—which combined an accelerometer, a gyroscope, a magnetometer, a temperature gauge, and a processor to sort through all that sensory data—for $17 at RadioShack. They began building their own drones, which was fun for them but not always for their kids, who would watch, disappointed, as their parents flew them into trees. “No! Oh, shoot, hit the tree,” one dad says in a YouTube clip posted in 2018. “Should I stop recording?” a boy asks.

Drones are not inherent privacy invaders; modern models, after all, are in large part based on the open-source efforts of all those tech-loving tinkerers. (By now, the hobbyists have largely ceded innovation in the field to Chinese companies like DJI, which produces high-quality, low-priced drones popular among first responders, remote-control enthusiasts, and photographers.) Drones are only as harmful as the hands that fly them; in the hands of rescuers, they find people for the sole purpose of saving lives.

Garrett and Burgin on the Indian Trail
Garrett and Burgin on the Indian Trail (Photo: Will Saunders)
Volunteers with Weber County Search and Rescue, pictured here with Burgin and Garrett. Top row, from left: Jim Stoddard, John Sohl, Rob Clark, and Debbie and Kyle Nordfors
Volunteers with Weber County Search and Rescue, pictured here with Burgin and Garrett. Top row, from left: Jim Stoddard, John Sohl, Rob Clark, and Debbie and Kyle Nordfors (Photo: Will Saunders)

Kyle’s drone climbed into the night, above the trees obscuring his vision from the road, above the trail Garrett and Burgin had strayed from. And then, in seconds, a light appeared on his monitor, shining far away in the darkness.

Kyle flew the drone toward the light. It shined brighter, then it flashed five times.

The drone hovered over Garrett and Burgin, washing them in its spotlight. They had their headlamps on and sat hip to hip, knees pulled into their chests, a silver space blanket drawn around their shoulders. In the corner of his monitor, Kyle could see the lights of Ogden. The dividing line—civilization there, wilderness here—was so apparent from up high. You wouldn’t be able to mark it clearly on a map, but Garrett and Burgin were over the edge, lost on the wild side. And now they were found—in four minutes.

“Hello!” Garrett yelled at the drone.

Later, at the lot where Garrett had parked her Dodge Caravan ten hours earlier, there was a big scene: flashing lights and volunteers with Weber County Search and Rescue, smiling and shaking hands.

“Wow,” Garrett said. Then she saw Debbie, who she knew because Debbie had danced with her daughter on a high school drill team. Debbie! Garrett hugged her, and then Debbie introduced her to Kyle, whose buzzing toy might have saved her life.

Garrett in the mountains near Ogden (Video: Phil Hessler)

On a sunny day last March, Garrett and Burgin met me, Kyle, Debbie, and a few other members of Weber County Search and Rescue at the Indian Trail parking lot, a year after they’d gotten lost. Kyle gave Garrett a hug.

Everyone was in a good mood as we hiked up the trail through dry grass and scrub bushes on a warm, western-facing slope. We were headed for the area where Garrett and Burgin had strayed—an intersection with an unmarked trail they mistakenly followed—and the hiking so far had been easy. But as we wrapped around the slope into Ogden Canyon, the city faded and a forest of dark pines towered over us. Their shade chilled the air.

Garrett came back here for the first time a few weeks ago, a return that provoked memories of the rescue. Without that drone, she said as we hiked, she surely would have died of exposure. She couldn’t have made it down on her own. Not her. No way. So they had prayed up there that God would protect them, and when they heard a buzzing and were washed in bright light, it was as if the heavens had opened.

In a few years, the role of drones in search and rescue is likely to expand. SAR teams are already experimenting with ferrying supplies to people while they await rescue: emergency items like insulin and EpiPens. Some teams are experimenting with mounting cell phone detectors on drones to determine if this combination can be used to pinpoint the location of missing persons. David Kovar, an expert in search and rescue, says drones can be viewed as “flying pickup trucks.” You pick your payload and go.

“Drones don’t replace the ground search-and-rescue guys,” says Keenan Campbell, director of an emergency management office in rural Bureau County, Illinois. “But the eye in the sky makes things so much easier.”

In the future, drones will be able to find and help people without the need of a human operator. Skydio, a California drone company that’s a leader in the field of autonomous flight, sells drones that can pick their own way through complicated environments, including tight trails in dense woods. These drones, which can also be flown manually by a human operator, are capable of identifying and tracking humans or cars.

Back on the Indian Trail, we reached the intersection. We were in the alpine zone, and the thick forest had thinned into a broad, rocky peak that towered over us. Everyone dropped their packs, and Garrett and Burgin looked back at the spot where they had turned off the trail. “We just started following,” Garrett said, waving into the distance to indicate their path.

“We thought, This has got to be going to Ogden,” Burgin said.

I hiked up the path a ways with two members of the search and rescue team. It wound around boulders as big as minivans. We stopped when we hit snow, and John Sohl, the man who’d recruited Kyle and his drone, pointed uphill. “Someone hiked there recently,” he said. “You can see their footprints right there.”

And we could: three solitary steps into the wilderness; no return tracks. Who had left them and where was the hiker going? Was this person prepared? There was still plenty of daylight, but I thought about Garrett and Burgin’s rescue in the dark, and how cold it was in this steep and broken terrain. Without the drone, would they have made it out of here alive?

Corrections: The print version of this story inaccurately stated that the company Skydio sells drones capable of identifying people using face-recognition technology. This version of the story has been updated to reflect that these drones are only capable of identifying and tracking humans or cars. From September/October 2021 Lead Photo: Will Saunders