How a Va. agency is using sUAS to find missing persons

The sUAS is outfitted with a Project Lifesaver antenna, which provides enhanced ability to track people with certain medical conditions that may wander away from home


This article is taken from the March 2018 issue of eTechBeat, published by the Justice Technology Information Center, a component of the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center System, a program of the National Institute of Justice, (800) 248-2742.

By Michele Coppola
TechBeat Magazine

A Virginia sheriff’s office is using a small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) with a Project Lifesaver antenna, which provides enhanced ability to track people with certain medical conditions that may wander away from home.

The Project Lifesaver program is an electronic-based locating system for people with medical conditions such as Alzheimer’s or autism. Clients are fitted with a wristband transmitter that emits a unique frequency so they can be located if they wander away and become lost.

Loudoun County has a population of about 380,000 residents in 520 square miles. (Photo/Tech Beat Magazine)
Loudoun County has a population of about 380,000 residents in 520 square miles. (Photo/Tech Beat Magazine)

The Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office has been active in the Project Lifesaver program, using ground-based antennas, since 2009. It began using an sUAS equipped with a Project Lifesaver antenna in September 2017. The signal can be acquired by the sUAS at a distance of seven to nine miles.

The sUAS carries infrared and thermal cameras to assist with search and rescue operations, and can be used to search for anyone, not just those registered with the lifesaver program. Loudoun has six pilots certified to fly sUAS under Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Administration regulations. The office also has approval to fly at night.

“We have a strong Project Lifesaver program in the county and obviously in the past have provided ground support with deputies using the devices,” says Master Deputy Matt Devaney, rescue team lead and UAS coordinator. “Using ground antennas is good but there are limitations of using it strictly from the ground. The sUAS carries the Project Lifesaver payload, and using it we can limit the number of people out on the ground and cover a larger area to help locate people even quicker.”

In December 2017, the sUAS was used to locate a lost 92-year-old hunter in a wooded area of Shenandoah County. Seven members of the search and rescue team responded and used the sUAS to search the area. Devaney was the pilot for that search. “We found him within 20 minutes of liftoff.”

The county’s sUAS was the first in Virginia to be equipped with a Project Lifesaver antenna. The sUAS Loudoun uses has a battery duration of 45 to 50 minutes. The technology allows a search of a larger area quickly and mapping to a grid.

“For the Project Lifesaver side of it, we have tested it on the ground, and with the handheld antenna, our average range is about three-quarters of a mile, whereas with the drone up in the air, we are averaging seven to nine miles in being able to get a signal and directionality as to where the lost or missing person is located,” Devaney says.

Project Lifesaver is a nationwide program, but each jurisdiction maintains clients within its jurisdiction. Currently, Loudoun has 118 Project Lifesaver clients signed up. The county has used the sUAS to conduct search and rescue missions since September, but as of early March had not had to use it to locate a client in the lifesaver program.

Loudoun participates in the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, and provides mutual aid to jurisdictions in northern Virginia and southern Maryland. Over the years the Loudoun team has traveled to Montgomery County in Maryland and Prince William and Fairfax counties in Virginia to assist with ground searchers for lost persons or evidence searches.

Loudoun County has a population of about 380,000 residents in 520 square miles. The sheriff’s office provides a range of support (e.g., patrol, court security, corrections, special operations, traffic reconstruction, search and rescue, criminal investigation and school security) and has a jail with 600 beds. The department has about 600 sworn personnel.

For more information, contact Kraig Troxell, sheriff’s office media relations and communications manager, and at Kraig.troxell@loudoun.gov.

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