Drone pilot locates missing 82-year-old man after three-day search

Photo by Funky Frog Stock/Shutterstock

The case for consumer drones got a boost after an amateur pilot ended a search-and-rescue effort last weekend by locating a missing ophthalmologist, who suffers from dementia, in a bean field in Wisconsin.

David Lesh, who normally uses the drone to make videos for his ski and snowboard business in Colorado, says he decided to try and help after learning of the search while visiting his girlfriend.

“I never thought that I would be using it to find somebody,” Lesh told NBC, saying he spotted 82-year-old Guillermo DeVenecia, who was found shoeless but unharmed, in 20 minutes after scoping a 200-acre field from the air.

The help from Lesh and his drone spared volunteers hours of trudging through a muddy field, and ended a three-day effort that had involved search dogs, a helicopter and hundreds of people.

The incident may also put additional pressure on the FAA to review its policy on the use of drones, many of which weigh under five pounds. The aviation regulator has so far taken a hard line on drones, banning their commercial use altogether, and ordering a well-known Texas-based search-and-rescue organization to ground its drones (the Texas group has since defied the order after a recent court ruling).

“Drones can very quickly and efficiently save lives and improve industries compared to traditional approaches,” said lawyer Brendan Schulman, who is challenging the FAA policy before the courts on behalf of drone users. “This is a technology our leaders should be embracing and promoting, right now.”

While there is major investment and a number of strong business cases for drones, including farming and news gathering, the devices are also creating social friction; recent incidents involve an assault at the beach, and a man arrested for flying a drone outside medical exam rooms. But as I’ve argued before, in looking at the law of drones, aggressive or creepy behavior can be addressed through state and city laws without the intervention of the FAA.

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