On the night of June 21, 2017, emergency dispatchers received a call regarding a boat that capsized on Delta Lake in South Texas. The caller stated that 4 of his friends had gone fishing at night and called him for help when their boat was unable to handle the high winds and choppy waters. After messaging that their boat was sinking, contact was lost with the fishermen.
Immediately after the call, a multi-agency response was underway. Texas DPS provided air support with a rotorcraft and Weslaco Fire Department dispatched its Special Operations Division that included two water rescue vessels. While DPS used FLIR to search from the air, a different type of search was taking place on the ground. Rescue personnel were unable to locate a boat ramp. After calling the agency responsible for the lake, it was discovered that there were no practical access points, as boats and fishing are strictly prohibited.
After 30 minutes of searching, DPS located the boat approximately 1 mile from the command post. However, there was a marshy peninsula between the two locations and the rescue crews would have to navigate around it and several underwater hazards to reach them. The pilot provided the first of several updates, “I count four people in the water, it looks like they are trying to hang onto the boat. ETA?”
The information received caused alarm for personnel on the ground and a decision on acceptable risk for getting boats in the water was going to have to be made. Rescue workers prepared for a rushed entry that would involve physically carrying the boats and equipment over a rocky area and through brush before reaching the water. A SOARD Solutions remote drone pilot was on scene and approached the incident commander with the suggestion of using a drone to gather critical intel on the condition of the fishermen as well as provide additional situational awareness for the personnel that would be entrusted to conduct the rescue. The incident commander had familiarized himself with the benefits of drones, as his Fire Department was the first to have a fully operational drone team in South Texas*. He immediately agreed that a drone would be useful and requested, “eyes on the boat”. Following all company protocols, FAA requirements, and conditions for his waiver, the pilot readied the drone for launch and briefed his visual observer of the potential hazards, and duties he would have. Radio communications were established with the DPS manned aircraft and altitudes for the flight were discussed. In order to maintain a safe distance between aircraft, DPS would climb to 1,000 AGL and the S.O.A.R.D. drone would stay below 300 AGL.
Within seconds of the DJI Phantom 4 drone lifting off, it was in “Sport Mode” and rushing to the fishermen’s location. In less than a minute the drone was hovering over the 4 fishermen. The Incident Commander radioed DPS and requested illumination of the subjects. As DPS provided light, and the visual observer monitored altitude over the ground, the SOARD remote drone pilot was able to place the drone in an offset hover, within 20 feet of the victims. Critical data and video was immediately relayed to the Incident Commander. What was discovered was that all 4 individuals were standing in waist high water and did not appear to be injured. This information assisted the Incident Commander in determining the level of acceptable risk. One of the water rescue teams was put on standby, while the other was instructed to take some additional time and find a safer avenue of approach.
Working in conjunction with the DPS aircraft, the SOARD Solutions drone maintained its “eyes on the boat” and provided constant updates as to the condition of the 4 fishermen. Finally, after safely getting a boat in the water, the Weslaco Fire Department used the anti-collision lights on the drone to navigate their way to fishermen in the water. The rescue was completed and video documentation was provided to the department for an after action review.
SOARD Solutions is proud to have played a part in this rescue.
• Too many drone service providers solely use video based training or copied materials and stop at Part 107. We serve the First Responder community and as such, we hold ourselves to a higher standard. Should your agency choose to fly under the Part 107 rule, be sure to continue with training and apply for waivers. After all, emergencies don’t only happen at during daytime or civil twilight hours. (Contact us if you are interested in obtaining a waiver or would like night time operations training)
• Drones aren’t only there to tell you how “bad” a situation is. First responders prepare for the worst, and therefore usually assume the worst. The most important role for a drone is to provide real time data and situational awareness. In this case, having a visual of the 4 fishermen provided the Incident Commander with information that he then used to determine acceptable risk for rescue personnel and equipment. The fact that the fishermen were not injured does not make aerial data any less valuable. We will never know whether the decision to slow down and find another avenue of approach saved rescue personnel from an unforeseen risk.