A Drone Saved an Elderly Man Who Had Been Missing for Three Days

And all it took was 30 minutes.

Jason Koebler

Jason Koebler

Image: Flickr/Carsten Frezl

A drone was just used to save a life: Earlier this week, an elderly man who was missing for three days was found with the help of a drone in Wisconsin.

82-year-old Guillermo DeVenecia had been missing for three days. Search dogs, a helicopter, and hundreds of volunteers had spent days looking for him. David Lesh, a Colorado-based skier (catch him doing a double front flip here, because, why not) decided to look for him using his drone—and found him within 30 minutes.

Lesh just happened to be in town visiting his girlfriend's family. DeVenecia's story was all over the local news and the search team was nearby, so Lesh thought he'd volunteer his drone.

"My girlfriend's sister said you should go to the search-and-rescue command center to see if they could use my drone. We drove down there, and they wanted to search a pretty big farm field, where they couldn't really search it on foot because of the way the cropers were," Lesh told me. "The drone saw a man stumbling barely upright in a cornfield. It pretty obvious who he was. 

It was DeVenecia, who had apparently wandered off from his home and said he had no idea he'd been gone so long.

"We weren't really sure what we would find or what kind of shape he would be in if we did find him. In fact, I don't think any of us expected to find him—his family didn't have much hope that he was alive," Lesh said. "We went up to him and carried him back to the car. He was missing his toenails and fingernails, he was beat up."

This is, of course, why drones are so promising for search-and-rescue. They can be flown much lower to the ground compared to helicopters, and can be outfitted with wide-angle lenses to get a better view of huge fields. They can cover huge areas of land in a fraction of the time that a search and rescue team can, which saves money and could end up being the difference between life and death.

"He'd been out there a few days with no water. His family was overjoyed and was crying," Lesh said. "The police were amazed that some people who had been there for a half an hour had found the guy when they'd had a full team on it for days."

That's why it's so disappointing the Federal Aviation Administration has spent much of this year trying to ground volunteer organizations who use drones for search-and-rescue. Last week, a federal judge ruled that Texas EquuSearch, a nonprofit group that has been using drones to look for people for several years, could continue flying without FAA permission. The organization had been grounded for months while the saga played out in court.

Last year, a man lost in Canada was located and saved using a search-and-rescue police drone, but this is the first time a person's life has been saved thanks to a drone in the United States.

"This is exactly the reason Texas EquuSearch fought for the right to use civilian drone technology in its volunteer search missions," Brendan Schulman, Texas EquuSearch's lawyer, told me. "Drones are as effective as 100 searchers on the ground, and in many cases provide a view that cannot be seen any other way, including by manned helicopters. This ought to be the way our country does search and rescue from the very first hour a search begins."

Lesh, meanwhile, was just a guy with a drone. He's the first person who has ever used a drone to find a person alive—but he's certainly not going to be the last.