A drone pilot helped rescue four people who were stranded by floodwaters in a Fort Worth suburb Sunday morning.
The drone was used in two separate incidents for two separate reasons, underscoring the versatility of the emerging technology in search-and-rescue scenarios. In an early morning rescue, Garret Bryl, a volunteer drone pilot who works with the Joshua Fire Department in Texas, used his drone to spot a pickup truck that had been swept off the road and into a forest during a flash flood.
Later that day, he used the drone to fly a rope to two people who were stranded in their mobile home. The rope was then used to pass life preservers to the couple, who were later rescued by a helicopter.
"It was pretty exciting, it was the whole team that did it," Bryl told me. "This time, the drone was the hero of the scene but it couldn't have happened without everyone working together."
Bryl told me that he has modified a DJI Inspire One drone to carry a searchlight. Early Sunday morning, he used the drone-mounted spotlight to find two missing people that ground crews couldn't locate. The truck they were driving was swept off the road by rushing water and ended up underneath some downed trees.
"Right now, I'm basically flying as an enthusiast with an emergency scanner"
"The water was pushing it under, it was bad and pretty scary. The fire department had been looking for the truck for about a half hour or so and couldn't find it," Bryl said. "The fire chief asked if I could put up the drone, and I found them in 25 seconds. It was fast. From the aerial perspective, the reflector on the tail light was illuminated by the spotlight."
The fire department sent in a small rescue hovercraft and saved the people trapped inside. Mere hours later, Bryl was at it again.
The second rescue was slightly more dramatic, in that it played out on live television. The water level surrounding Tracey and Bill Kastel's mobile home had risen to their door (their home is on stilts), trapping them inside. The water was rushing too fast to make a boat rescue.
Bryl used the drone to fly what's known as a "leader line" rope over to the Kastel's home. Bill Kastel grabbed the rope and tied it to the base of his home, allowing rescue workers to shuttle over life preservers and a rescue line. With the family stabilized, a rescue worker operating out of a National Guard Black Hawk helicopter was able to rappel down and save them. The Kastels did not respond to my interview request.
Bryl told me the lead line maneuver is one that he and the fire department practiced for the first time a couple weeks ago.
Interestingly, and perhaps unfortunately, Bryl isn't officially affiliated with the fire department, because the Federal Aviation Administration has a penchant for sending cease-and-desist letters to organizations that fly drones for search and rescue without official clearance from the agency.
Last year, the FAA was embroiled in an ongoing dispute with Texas EquuSearch, a volunteer search-and-rescue group that has been flying drones on many of its missions. The FAA formally asked the group to stop flying; the group sued. That case was eventually thrown out, and the organization has, on occasion, obtained what's known as an emergency Certificate of Authorization to fly its drone.
The Joshua Fire Department doesn't have a COA (it has applied for one). So, in the meantime, Bryl is flying merely as a hobbyist.
"Right now, I'm basically flying as an enthusiast with an emergency scanner," he said. "I know they'd like to have me out there, so I show up in the same way the media might show up and ask them if they need help."
Brendan Schulman, a lawyer who specializes in drone issues and represented Texas EquuSearch last year in its case against the FAA said that the agency needs to make it easier for people like Bryl to fly.
"Stories like these are a good example of why we need to create a lightly-regulated framework for 'micro' drones that are very light weight and are flown low to the ground, separate from the regulations for larger systems," Schulman told me.
"In the case of that water rescue with the rope, the drone apparently wasn't even flown above the roof line," he added. "Countries such as Mexico and Canada have created a stand-alone set of requirements for operating commercial drones that are under 4.4 pounds. The United States should do the same."
Bryl says he's been flying in cooperation with the fire department for about six months now (he started flying quadcopters about three years ago). He said he flies for the department multiple times a week, often to get a better perspective on the brushfires that are common in the area.
"It's a whole different level of flying when you're helping out with an emergency," he said. "When you have property and lives at stake, it gets difficult."