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Amateur Drone Pilot Saves Man's Life in Search-and-Rescue Effort But the FAA Still Doesn't Approve


"In these desperate situations, we should be providing every possible resource to reunite families with their loved ones."


When an 82-year-old man with dementia and hearing loss went missing last week, police and hundreds of volunteer searchers began combing the dense woods around the Virginia man's home. They brought in search dogs. And they even sent up a helicopter.

wefa A remote-control device with first-person camera technology similar to this was used to find a missing 82-year-old man in Virginia, but the FAA tried to ban drone-assisted search and rescue this summer (Image source: WickedDrones).

After three days, many thought the rescue operation had turned into a search for a body.

But Guillermo DeVenecia was still alive, and thankfully, the search team didn't give up.

When amateur remote control pilot David Lesh heard about the search for DeVenecia, he and his girlfriend and her father took to the skies Saturday above the 200-acre soybean field near the search area.

"I thought what would happen would be we'd be able to give them the peace of mind to cross of some more areas quickly," Lesh's girlfriend, Katie Gorman, told local NBC news affiliate WMTV-TV.

Using a first-person-view controller, Lesh flew roughly 200 feet above the ground and scoured the massive field for signs of life. In what would have taken hundreds of searchers hours to accomplish on foot, Lesh covered the area in just minutes.

As they set up to survey the final corner of the field, Lesh noticed a man standing in the middle of it.

"As we were making the last turn to fly it, we noticed a man out in the field sort of stumbling, looking a little disoriented," Lesh said.

It was DeVenecia. Dehydrated and dizzy from lack of food or water for three days, the lucky survivor never would have been able to find his way out of the field alone. But the searchers with a drone saved his life.

"I never thought that I would be using it to find somebody," Lesh said. The Colorado resident owns a ski and snowboard outerwear company and recently purchased a drone to film aerial ski and snowboard videos. He just happened to be visiting his girlfriend's family in Virginia at the right time.

One Texas group that specializes in this kind of assistance for search-and-rescue operations has seen similar saves happen with the use of remotely piloted drones, but the Federal Aviation Administration tried to put a stop to their operations with a cease-and-desist order.

In May, the FAA told nonprofit Texas EquuSearch to halt all of its drone flights. The group filed for a stay in federal court, and last week, the court agreed with the search group.

The court said the FAA’s directive was “not a formal cease-and-desist letter” and there was an “absence of any identified legal consequences flowing from” it, attorney Brendan Schulman told TheBlaze.

"Although the dismissal means there will be no decision on the underlying legal questions, it achieves the desired result of clarifying that Texas EquuSearch is not legally required to halt its humanitarian drone operations," Schulman said.

That means families, like DeVenecia's, will have the option to use Texas Equusearch's drones to search for their loved ones if they've gone missing -- for now. Since its founding, the group has been involved in over 1,400 searches in 42 states and eight foreign countries, and has found over 300 missing people alive.

"In these desperate situations, we should be providing every possible resource to reunite families with their loved ones,"  Schulman said. "The technology is safe, easy to use, and replaces the work of dozens of people on the ground.  It's obviously to me that our government should be supporting to use of this technology any time it might help find a stranded hiker or child who wanders away from home."

Check out WMTV's coverage of the drone assist in DeVenecia's search:



Follow Elizabeth Kreft (@elizabethakreft) on Twitter

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