BANGOR, Maine — A Maine-based search and rescue organization has become the first civilian entity of its type to receive permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to use unmanned aircraft systems, or drones.
The authorization granted to Down East Emergency Medicine Institute on April 6 allows it to operate two drones it purchased from a southern Maine manufacturer — one of them a fixed-wing model and the other a larger multi-rotor version — to fly at altitudes of 200 feet or lower so long as it abides by certain guidelines, according to documents provided by the FAA.
“The great thing is it will save lives,” DEEMI Director Richard Bowie said.
Established in 1991, DEEMI typically deploys its vehicles, aircraft and volunteers for about 25 search and rescue operations per year, Bowie said. The nonprofit organization has about 120 volunteers, he said.
The idea is to enable the organization to deploy its drones to places its helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft could not otherwise easily reach. Because drones are not manned, they can fly missions without putting human life at risk in hazardous weather conditions, Bowie said.
As Bowie sees it, the FAA approval also will enhance the aerial imagery technology DEEMI uses on its fixed-wing aircraft, which is authorized to fly only at altitudes of 500 feet and up. The lower altitudes at which drones fly will mean better resolution.
The drones’ digital imagery will be live streamed, unlike with the airplane, which must land before sending data.
“It gives us better access to the data faster,” he said.
The ability to use drones also will provide a means for communicating with lost or injured people through a speaker system because electric engines on drones are so quiet, Bowie said.
Perhaps equally intriguing is that the larger of DEEMI’s drones can carry payloads of up to 12 pounds, which could contain such life-saving deliveries as cellphones or radios, food, space blankets and lighters to start fires, to name a few, Bowie said.
Bowie said his brother, DEEMI Medical Director Dr. Robert Bowie, is exploring the potential for delivering medicine and equipment — such as heart medications, bee sting kits or automatic defibrillators — with the drone.
The drones also will be used to locate deceased people, such as drowning victims, for recovery operations, he said.
DEEMI’s petition for a Section 333 exemption was granted as a matter of public interest, according to the FAA. As of Monday, only 137 such exemptions had been approved nationally. Recipients included agricultural, aerial photography, mapping and inspection organizations, to name a few.
The FAA requires the drones be operated by licensed pilots, who will undergo an intensive training and certification program provided by the drones’ manufacturer, Viking Unmanned Aerial Solutions in the next few weeks. Once the pilots are certified, the drones will be put into use.
The group’s volunteer pilots “already are aircraft pilots but have to cross over into the [different] piloting world of the drone,” Bowie said.
DEEMI also must maintain visual contact with its drones while they are in the air, which Bowie said is simply a matter of positioning volunteers along the drone’s flight path.
DEEMI already had sophisticated aerial imaging capabilities when members began looking for ways to improve.
Last year, Bowie saw a Bangor Daily News article about former U.S. Air Force flyer and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University graduate Christopher Taylor and his Gorham-based company, which manufactures drones for use in a variety of applications, mostly for the Asian and European markets, which have more freedom to use drones.
“I said, ‘Listen. We’re search and rescue, and you’re the guy in Maine wanting to do the drone thing. Let’s marry the two together,” Bowie said.
“And he was all excited because he’s got kids and he wanted to bring his knowledge and experience to bear in Maine and he volunteered to help us. He wanted to jump in with both feet and help us out,” Bowie said.
“So since we already knew the data-imaging world — we were already doing it — it was just a matter of figuring out how to get his platform and our imaging to marry together,” Bowie said.
DEEMI bought the equipment, but Taylor donated his time, knowledge and expertise to the effort.
Taylor, one of the pioneers of the drone industry, said he is looking forward to applying the technology to search and rescue.
“We’re excited that we have operations like DEEMI that are going to utilize this technology saving lives in Maine,” he said.
“We thought that what they were doing was second to none with regard to how they go about performing search and rescue,” he said. “We decided it would be a good relationship for us to work with, and I think it’s worked out for both of us.”
According to Bowie, the smaller of DEEMI’s drones, the roughly $6,000 fixed-wing VK-Ranger EX-SAR, which has a wingspan of about 70 inches, will be used mainly for training.
The larger multi-rotor VVK-FF-X4K, which cost between $20,000 and $25,000 to build and equip, will serve as more of a workhorse, Bowie said.
The cost for the drones and related equipment was covered by donations to DEEMI, a nonprofit (501)(c)(3) organization, Bowie said.
Bowie and Taylor said the multi-rotor drone has a range of about 6 miles or 45 minutes flying time, is about 4 feet by 4 feet in size and weighs about 30 pounds.
It is flown via a program that can be run on an iPad, laptop or a smartphone. The program allows the pilot to set various waypoints that tell the drone where to fly and at what altitudes before automatically returning to base, Taylor said.
Two people are needed to fly the drones, a pilot and a camera operator, who is able to pan and zoom in order to find search targets.
Bowie said the drones will be used to find and rescue people in conjunction with its traditional search techniques, which include interviews with law enforcement and loved ones and its tracking dog team, Julie Jones of VK9 Scent Specific Search and Recovery Unit and Quincy.
With regard to privacy concerns, Bowie said any images it gathers are used strictly for search and rescue purposes. They are sent to the University of Maine’s secure computer server for analysis and are archived privately.
He also said the drones are being painted red, white and yellow — the color scheme DEEMI uses for its Humvees and aircraft — and they will be equipped with strobe lights.
“So it will be very high visibility,” he said. “It’s not trying to hide. It’s not trying to be sneaky. It’s very obviously doing a job.”