'They're Playing God': The Federal Drone Ban Is Thwarting Rescue Missions

The agency has interfered with a number of search-and-rescue missions where drones could have helped.

A week after University of Indiana student Lauren Spierer went missing, Gene Robinson packed up his Spectra Flying Wing drone and got on a plane bound for Bloomington. When he got off the plane, his cell phone rang. 

It was the Federal Aviation Administration. The agency had gotten word, from a local news report, that Texas EquuSearch, a world-renowned search-and-rescue agency, would be assisting in the search for Spierer. Robinson partners with Texas EquuSearch to use drones to assist rural search-and-rescue efforts; the FAA, in the midst of a crackdown on what it deems "commercial" drone usage, has been butting heads with Robinson for years now.

Robinson says that the agency's representative told him that as long as he flew in manual mode, there would be no problem. The next day, when he went out to the search, he heard something completely different.

"The police chief wouldn't let me open my case. He said if I took it out, he would arrest me," Robinson told me. 

The use of a drone in that particular instance ended up getting congressional attention and devolved into a circus. The area they were searching, a rock quarry, was deemed too dangerous to send in Texas EquuSearch volunteers on foot. The search for Spierer was completely abandoned.

"I had to look at Lauren Spierer's mother as she wailed when we told her we were leaving the search. We had to watch her husband cry," Robinson said. "To watch that woman cry as we were walking out the door was not an easy thing to do, but because of what the FAA did, and the sideshow it became, we had to go."

Three years later, Lauren Spierer is still missing.

There are still Lauren Spierer missing person posters in Bloomington, Indiana. Image: Facebook

For nine years, Robinson and Texas EquuSearch have been using drones to look for missing people. So far, drones have directly helped the nonprofit team find the remains of 11 people in several states. But, because the FAA has not officially given the organization permission to fly (the agency hasn't given permission to any private entities, outside of one company in Alaska), Texas EquuSearch has been the target of increasingly stern FAA warnings.

The current legality of using drones is a muddled mess, one that we've explained here—but, basically, the FAA has never officially regulated the use of drones, just suggested that people not use them until it has finalized its official regulations, which is supposed to happen by 2015 (though the agency has missed nearly every deadline Congress has set for it so far). Still, the agency insists that it is "illegal" for Texas EquuSearch or any organized entity to use drones for a specific purpose. Meanwhile, hobbyists can do with them what they like.

Robinson says he has flown drones for more than a decade, has never had an accident, coordinates with local airports to make sure there's no risk of a collision with a manned aircraft, and has even put out a book about safe drone use practices. After his experience looking for Spierer, Hal Turner, a staffer for Bloomington's Congressman Todd Young called him, Robinson told me.

"If I'm Joe Blow and I take my drone out and fly it over the quarry and take pictures and finds Lauren Spierer's body, what does that make him?" Robinson said, referring to the conversation. "I said, 'It makes him a hero.' And he said, 'What if you do the same thing?' Well, then I get arrested."

Tim Miller, who founded Texas EquuSearch in 2000, knows what it's like to lose a child. In 1984, his daughter, Laura, was abducted in North Galveston County, Texas. Her body wasn't found for 17 months. When they found her, she was little more than a skeleton. The bodies of three other girls were also found in the field—Laura was the second one murdered. There was little to no useable evidence by the time she was found. Her killer is still on the loose. 

"The field had already been searched when she had been dead for a month, maybe six weeks. But by the time she was actually found, it had been there a whole 17 months," he told me. "With a drone, I guarantee you they could have found Laura within a day or two. There would have been evidence, there would have been a cause of death. There might be two girls still alive. If we had this back in 1984, someone could have been arrested. Instead, there's a serial killer out there."

Robinson says even when a drone doesn't directly find a person, it's helpful. Image: Mahapix Studio

There's no way of knowing if a drone would have actually led to the arrest of a suspect, but a drone can cover huge swaths of land much faster than a land crew can. It can relay pictures back to a base station in real time, and new infrared, thermal, and full-spectrum ultraviolet sensors just makes the whole thing much easier. They are many orders of magnitude cheaper than helicopters, are portable, cost essentially nothing to fly, and can fly much lower to the ground than helicopters. Even if they don't directly find a missing person, they are still useful for the whole effort, Robinson said. Miller says that

"A lot of people don't understand that. Sometimes, when you have nothing but woods in front of you, satellite images are 18 months old. With a drone, you can know if there's a fence or a river that's flooded or a lake, and it helps you plan the search," he said. And, so far, it has directly imaged the bodies of missing people even when other search efforts haven't worked.

Robinson says that, in one case, the Texas Rangers had spent five days looking for a missing toddler. Within minutes, his drone had found the body of the child. It wasn't a happy ending, but it beats the alternative.

"When Laura was missing, every time my phone rang, every time there was a knock on the door, I had heart palpitations," Miller said. "When they finally found her, I thought, 'Well, now we know.' There's nothing worse than knowing your child is dead somewhere and not being able to see the body. It brings closure to the family."

Earlier this month, Texas EquuSearch, with the help of Brendan Schulman, a New York City lawyer who has already beaten the FAA once, sent a letter to the agency threatening legal action if they don't allow Texas EquuSearch to fly. In the letter, Schulman demands that the FAA permit the group to fly—or at least stop interfering—because of the fact that they have never regulated drones.

"It is incomprehensible that the FAA would for decades raise no issue with respect to recreational operation of these devices but prohibit and deem 'illegal' the exact same use for the purpose of saving the lives of missing children," Schulman wrote.

The FAA has basically said that, until it figures out what the rules for small drone use can be, no one—even if lives are at stake—can use them without express permission. In fact, Robinson, through the National Institute of Standards and Technology, actually has a Certificate of Authorization to use a drone. NIST is not involved in search-and-rescue, Robinson uses his own drone for searches. Essentially, the FAA acknowledges he is a good pilot, but has restricted his flying with Texas EquuSearch. In a letter sent from the FAA to Robinson in February, the agency said that Robinson could not fly outside of his specified airspace and that Texas EquuSearch must "stop immediately."

"I understand the pressure to get [small drones] integrated into the National Airspace is mounting, but it must not be at the sacrifice of what is right or safe," Alvin Brunner, the FAA's safety inspector, said in a letter to Robinson. Brunner told him to wait until "year's end" for official rules. He's still waiting, and the FAA is already several years behind in issuing them.

Robinson says he doesn't think the FAA is evil, but that it's "playing God" by forcing the group to wait. Robinson has the ability to file for an emergency certificate of authorization (which the agency says is its preferred method of going about this), but that they have been unresponsive in some instances. Calls on weekends have gone unanswered, and the FAA will only issue an emergency COA if there is an "imminent threat to life or property." Once, after a search for a child had gone on for five days, Robinson was called in to use the drone. He asked for the FAA's permission.

"They said, 'Well, it's been five days. Don't you think this is a recovery and not a rescue mission?'" Robinson said. "I'm not going to tell a father something like that. You don't know if they're dead or not. It's not that the FAA isn't empathetic, it's that they're just people who sit in a cube farm and state policy. The system is broken."

The FAA has not yet responded to Schulman's letter, though they tell me that they plan on responding sometime within the next several weeks. The agency would not talk to me about specific times the agency has told Texas EquuSearch not to fly. 

If the FAA refuses to allow Texas EquuSearch to fly, the group says it will sue. Miller says that the drone is too useful to give up, and that lives can be saved, families can spend less time wondering what happened to their loved ones.

"We'll fight as long as I have to fight," Miller said. "I will use that thing again. If it comes down to it, will I go against the FAA? I guess we have to make a choice. But it's a matter of life and death."