Richard Roberts initially joined the Jackson County Search and Rescue team because it kept him off the couch and “out of the missus’ hair,” he said.
Just three and a half years later, Roberts is one of a team of volunteer pilots helping lead search and rescue to new heights — literally.
Wednesday morning, he stood outside the C.B. Coleman Search and Rescue “Barn” off Antelope Road, looking over the shoulder of Jackson County Sheriff’s Sgt. Shawn Richards.
Richards, head of search-and-rescue operations for the county, held the controls to a DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise drone.
He isn’t one of the team’s nine licensed pilots, but the law does allow him to fly under the watchful eye of Roberts, who holds a license from the Federal Aviation Administration.
“That means he’s got to do what I tell him to,” Roberts said with a chuckle.
Together, they navigated the Mavic 2 over an area where a volunteer was hiding for a demonstration. Once he spotted her, Richards recorded and then broadcast an audio message instructing her to raise her right hand if she identified with the name Sam.
She lifted her arm. The “missing person” was found.
Those new capabilities of sight and sound afforded by the drone are two examples of how a fleet of five unmanned aircraft is helping Jackson County Search and Rescue do its job more safely and efficiently. Those benefits, members say, extend to both volunteers and victims.
“I’m super excited about the technology,” said Mark Unger, who is credited with pitching the incorporation of drones to Richards. “It’s always advancing, and the advances benefit us.”
Unger had been experimenting with drones in his own business, Sky Lakes Media, when he thought that the aircraft could be a big help to search efforts for missing people, dead or alive.
“It became obvious the first few times I flew a drone,” he said.
The first time that Unger flew a drone involved in an SAR operation was a bit more unorthodox than simply peering with a bird’s eye view, however.
Jackson County volunteers had been mobilized for a search in the Upper Klamath region. At one point during the operation, down in a valley, a deputy needed to transport digital memory cards full of footage collected from the river to the computer where it could be viewed.
It would take two hours or more for crews to use ropes to get down to where he was. Unger suggested a different approach.
He pulled his bootlace out of his shoe, he said, tying one end of it to his drone. To the other end, Unger tied a film canister filled with two cotton balls — leaving just enough space for the deputy below to place the SD card with the video footage and send it back up the slope.
Watch video from that operation below:
“So we could run ’em back and forth in a matter of minutes instead of the hour it took us to use climbing equipment to get up and down the side of the canyon,” Richards said.
It’s a story that delighted members of the Rotary Club of Medford, who listened to a presentation from Unger at their Tuesday meeting.
“It gives law enforcement a new capability that can really help save lives,” said Dennis Morgan, a member.
Some of the county’s fleet of five drones have FLIR cameras, which use thermal imaging to spot people. The Mavic 2, for example, has transmitting capabilities to communicate directions or call people out into the open.
Flying drones can be anything but simple, as the endeavor requires knowledge of all the federal state and local restrictions on where, when and how operators can fly their aircraft.
They have a waiver from the FAA to certify their pilots to perform governmental functions. They are frequently in communication with staff at the tower at the Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport, Richards said.
Jackson County Search and Rescue’s pilots train weekly to stay apprised of not only changing regulations, but also software and firmware updates, Unger said.
Roberts likes the ongoing learning process. He said that some people are surprised that he, who identified himself as closer to 80 than 70 years old, is interested in such a technical activity.
“Why not?” he asked. “I figure getting older is not an option, but growing up is.”
Besides, he said, much of the work involved with search and rescue is still dependent on the power of people.
“They’re a good tool,” he said, “but they’re not for everything.”
For more information on joining a search and rescue team, call 541-864-8830. The county’s volunteer application can be found at https://bit.ly/2NQZM0r.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at email@example.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.