The technology of UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) drones has continued to advance over the past five years. Drones can provide crisp, clear photos of hard-to-reach places and can even detect heat signatures when combined with a thermal imaging camera. But are drones an effective tool to use for lost pet recovery? In this article, we interview MAR Technician Ted Bachman who utilizes thermal drones to aid in lost pet recovery work. We asked Ted to tell us the good, the bad, and the unknowns about using drones for lost pet searches.
Kat: Ted, tell us how long you’ve been working with drones and how / why you got started in working with them.
Ted: I’ve been using thermal imaging cameras to search for missing cats for about two years now with pretty good outcomes. It wasn’t until recently that I offered to help with missing dog searches in mountainous and wooded areas. I quickly learned that dogs run much further than cats in their travels. These areas were just too large and time-consuming to cover on foot, thus came the thermal drone. The service that I provide is sightings only, to assist the various pet rescue organizations in my area. I’ve only been using the drone for about a month, but what a busy month it’s been!
Kat: It is common that pet owners ask for someone with a drone to come out and help them search for their lost pet, even in cases where a drone would be useless. What are some situations where a drone would NOT be appropriate to use when searching for a lost pet?
Ted: Now that word has traveled that this resource is available, requests are quickly increasing. I haven’t received a request (yet) where a drone search would be totally useless. I feel that it’s just another tool to use when a large area needs to be searched quickly. A request that was borderline useless was when a woman’s outdoor access cat didn’t return for a couple of days, and she requested a search. As it turns out, within a two-block area of this missing cat’s home, there were two feral cat colonies with at least 30+ cats running around the area. It’s easy to identify the thermal signature of a cat but identifying a specific cat from the air, out of dozens, is difficult. Fortunately, her cat returned home shortly after our flight.
Any case where a frightened animal is hunkered down in an area where there is junk and vehicles scattered throughout, greatly decreases the chance that they will be detected by a drone. The civilian-grade thermal systems cannot see through or under solid objects. Another hurdle to thermal drone searches is heavily wooded areas during the Summer and large pine trees. If you can’t see through to the ground from the air, the probability of detection is greatly reduced.
Kat: So what are some situations where a drone WOULD BE an appropriate tool to use to search for a lost pet?
Ted: I prioritize our aerial searches based upon risk to the pet. If there are animals that were separated due to auto accidents and are near busy roadways, these searches are given priority. Pets that are missing due to house fires are also prioritized.
Searches of wooded areas, tree lines, heavy thorn bushes, rocky terrain, or other areas that put searchers at increased risk due to terrain are also a good use of the drone.
Another good use for the drone is when the property owner will not give access to their property to allow for foot searches. An aerial search of this property can provide answers that would otherwise be unavailable.
Recently, after a light snowfall, a trail of pawprints was followed with the drone and it led us to a cat in the area that one had gone missing. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the cat that we were looking for but being able to track the pawprints with the drone probably saved hours of hoofing it on foot.
Kat: We recently saw a video where a drone with a long string attached to it carried a sausage to a dog that was trapped in a marshy area. They used it to entice the dog to follow the sausage out of the inaccessible area. After that, we saw hoards of people suggesting the use of drones on ALL lost dog cases. What are your thoughts on this?
Ted: I saw that video and it caught my attention as well. I haven’t had a situation yet that would involve luring an animal. I’d have some concerns about my drone if the dog took the sausage and ran with it into the woods. Unfortunately, drones aren’t the answer to all cases, but a powerful tool to have available if the need for creativity arises.
Kat: Tell us more about infrared technology. How accurate is it to pick up differences in temperatures?
Ted: Today’s thermal imaging cameras have high resolution, are very sensitive, and can detect fractions of a degree of temperature differential. The larger the “Delta T” or difference in temperature between the ambient surroundings such as the ground, rocks, and trees, and the temperature of the animals, the easier it is to visually detect the animal in the drone controller display and video.
One thing to take into consideration is that the ideal time for locating missing animals is in the Fall and Winter (in Northeast Pennsylvania) when the temperatures are low, and the tree leaf canopy and brush are minimal. As the temperatures increase and the ambient temperature becomes closer to the animal’s temperature, the Delta T decreases, and the animals will be harder to pick out on the video and photos.
Kat: What type of training, licensing, and expenses are involved in owning and operating a drone?
Ted: There are numerous companies that offer drone operation training, drone photography, and videography training and can be found on the internet. Also, training in drone Search and Rescue Operations will give the pilot additional information and skills that can be applied to searching for missing animals. In the US, drones weighing over 0.55 pounds need to be registered with the FAA, the registration fee is $5. If there is any type of compensation for your flying and you are not flying for recreational purposes, you need to have an FAA Part 107 Commercial Unmanned Pilot Certificate. The cost for this FAA certificate test is $150. Some of the other expenses are the drone itself, around $2500 for a thermal capable drone, and about $8,000 for the thermal camera. Additional costs are about $750 for liability insurance, $225 for each battery needing replacement, and about $500 for misc. maintenance costs.
Kat: Are there any resources that you can recommend where people can learn more about drones?
Ted: There is a wealth of information on the internet for those seeking information about drones and their operation. Both DJI drones and Autel drones have good information on their websites. There are a lot of videos on YouTube that can help in determining which, if any, drone would suit your needs. Please feel free to reach out to me if there is anything that I can do to assist.
Kat: Is there anything that you’d like to add?
Ted: Other than to just keep in mind that Drones are just another tool to help with sightings. And maybe now, used for luring?
Also, there are times that being able to make an absolute identification of what type of animal you’ve sighted with the thermal or visual camera system isn’t possible without boots on the ground. If the animal is stationary, it’s difficult to tell what it is without observing its stride. Having personnel that is in communication with the pilot or observer will need to be directed to the animal’s location in order to make a positive identification. At a minimum, the crew needed will be a pilot, a visual observer for the pilot, and at least two people to trek into the woods for identifying the animal. This is the crew needed just to attempt to get a sighting.
I think that a properly trained dog in conjunction with a thermal drone would make a perfect land and air search team.
Kat: Is there anything that you’d like to add?
Ted: Other than to just keep in mind that Drones are just another tool to help with sightings.
(Kat: One final note about drones is that just like tracking dogs, drones are NOT the most appropriate tool for every lost dog case. There are sometimes legal limitations with where they can be operated, some locations (i.e. heavily forested areas) make detection impossible, and some drones can be so noisy that they scare a skittish dog.)
Ted Bachman is a medical device test engineer for a worldwide company. He’s a former law enforcement officer, rescue chief, and public safety diver. Ted is an animal lover and advocate and donates his time to help pet search and rescue operations utilizing his drones. He can be reached at lvpetsearch.com.
by Kat Albrecht-Thiessen and Ted Bachman