Monday, April 28, 2014

Search-and-Rescue Group Hits Turbulence With Regulators Over Drone Flights: FAA regulations on unmanned aircraft have effectively grounded a fleet of model aircraft used in volunteer search and rescue operations

LOS ANGELES — For those whose loved ones have gone missing, the model aircraft operated by Tim Miller and his Texas EquuSearch nonprofit offer wings of hope.

Hovering no more than 400 feet above the ground and equipped with a digital camera, the aircraft have, according to Miller, led to the discovery of the remains of 11 missing people since Texas EquuSearch started using them in 2005.

The cameras can survey 1 square mile of land in less than 10 minutes and can spot items such as a shoe or a distinctly colored item of clothing that provide clues to a missing person’s location.

In 2012, hundreds of volunteers on foot spent five days looking for 2-year-old Devon Davis, Miller says, but after just two hours of searching, a drone found his body in a pond in Liberty County, Texas. A West Texas man who’d been missing for four months was found on the first day that drones were added to the search.

“Our mission is helping find missing loved ones,” Miller told MintPress News in an interview.

It’s a deeply personal quest for Miller, whose own daughter was abducted and murdered in 1984. Texas EquuSearch has coordinated more than 1,400 searches in the United States and eight other countries and found more than 300 missing people alive.

But now its fleet of four Spectra model aircraft has been grounded because of government officials who apparently see no distinction between its model planes and commercial drones, or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

In February, a U.S. Federal Aviation Administration official informed Gene Robinson, the volunteer who operates model aircraft for Texas EquuSearch, in an email that he was only authorized to operate a UAS for fire research purposes.

“If you are operating outside of [that authorization], stop immediately,” the email commanded. “That is an illegal operation,” regardless of whether Robinson was flying below 400 feet or doing volunteer search and rescue.

Miller’s attorney, Brendan Schulman, responded in a March 17 letter to the FAA’s top lawyer that the agency had wrongly applied a 2007 policy statement on drones in which it banned any unauthorized use of model aircraft for “business purposes.”

“[T]he use of model aircraft by Texas EquuSearch for volunteer humanitarian purposes falls outside of that ban,” Schulman protested. “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.”

Congress has directed the FAA to provide drones with widespread access to domestic airspace by 2015, but the agency is still working on regulations for commercial drone flights. For the time being, it has indicated that Texas EquuSearch should apply for an emergency “Certificate of Waiver or Authorization” every time it wants to use a drone in a search operation.

Texas EquuSearch says the process for obtaining such a certificate is only available to government agencies or their contractors and not to civilian search and rescue teams. With the FAA having failed to grant Schulman’s request to lift its order within 30 days, the organization filed a lawsuit against the agency on April 21, seeking for the order to be set aside.

Drones are “a very effective technology” for search and rescue, Schulman told MintPress. “It would have a devastating impact” if the FAA’s ban is not lifted. 

Verbal harassment 

 The technology helps to address a national tragedy. According to the FBI, nearly 628,000 people went missing in 2013 — an average of more than 1,700 each day. In search operations, time is of the essence — a few hours can make a difference in whether a person is found dead or alive or whether forensic evidence is properly preserved.

With so many cases and law enforcement resources stretched so thin, volunteer groups have become a key component of searches. Even if the missing person is not found alive, the discovery of the body, Schulman notes, brings some closure to families.

Miller’s 16-year-old daughter Laura vanished from a convenience store south of Houston 30 years ago. Boys riding bikes across an abandoned Texas oil field discovered her body 17 months after she went missing, but to this day, police still don’t know who killed her.

The grieving father set out to make something positive out of his loss by founding Texas EquuSearch in 2000. Last year, according to an IRS filing, the nonprofit raised $413,209 in donations and spent $397,410.

“It costs us money every time we go out there,” Miller noted.

Texas EquuSearch added model aircraft to its search tools in 2005. The Spectra, designed by RP Flight Systems Inc., commonly retails for under $100, is constructed of foam and plastic, weighs under 5 pounds and is controlled, within the visual line-of-sight of the operator, by the same type of radio control system that has been used by hobbyists for decades.

The FAA provided voluntary guidelines — known as Advisory Circular 91-57 — for model aircraft operators in 1981, requesting, among other things, that the planes not be flown above 400 feet. It made no distinction between those flown recreationally and those flown for any other reason.

But in 2007, the agency released the policy statement on drones in which it emphasized that AC 91-57 “only applies to modelers, and thus specifically excludes its use by persons or companies for business purposes.”

Since then, according to Schulman’s letter to the FAA, the agency has subjected Texas EquuSearch to “years of verbal harassment and telephone threats” intended to stop its use of model aircraft. In the case of an Indiana college student who disappeared in June 2011, the FAA’s phone contact with local authorities “caused so much friction and confusion that Texas EquuSearch had no choice but to discontinue its entire search operation,” the letter said.

Texas EquuSearch continued to use drones “under the radar,” Miller says. But by February, he and Robinson had “gotten to the point of, ‘We’ve got to win this battle somehow, we’ve got to fight for what we believe is right.’”

“I would like to know whether the FAA has changed its position on the use” of model planes for searches, Robinson wrote the agency in an email, noting, “The new rules promised years ago have not materialized … Under the circumstances, I am just going to continue these operations unless you give me a legal reason not to.”

“The purpose is purely humanitarian”

The FAA’s response to Robinson’s email came less than two hours later.

“As I have told you before, UAS operations that are not authorized … are illegal,” Alvin Brunner, an aviation safety inspector for the FAA, wrote. He recommended that Robinson follow the emergency authorization procedure and concluded, “I understand the pressure to get [small UAS] integrated into the [national air space] is mounting, but it must not be at the sacrifice of what is right or safe.”

Proposed regulations allowing flights of drones weighing less than 55 pounds aren’t due until November.

Schulman insists that the emergency authorization process “is really not valid in this context.” For one thing, it would require Texas EquuSearch to find a government agency to lease a drone from and “to do all that is really complicated compared to taking a model aircraft out of a suitcase.”

In addition, Schulman says, the FAA defines the term “emergency” very narrowly as “extreme risk to life.” A search and rescue operation that has already lasted a few days, he explains, “may not be within that definition but there is still a compelling need to search,” such as providing closure to the family of the missing person.

Requiring a certificate of authorization means “effectively, we can’t do it,” Schulman said. “It’s now illegal for a private company to operate a model aircraft system, period.”

To get the fleet of Spectras back up in the air, Texas EquuSearch has turned to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, arguing in a petition for review of the FAA’s order that “there is no legal basis for the FAA to prohibit the operation of a model aircraft for volunteer search-and-rescue activities.”

The 2007 policy statement, the petition says, is not legally binding and, even if it was, Texas EquuSearch “does not use the model aircraft for a commercial purpose. The purpose is purely humanitarian: to save a life when possible, and to ease the suffering of families by bringing closure when that life can no longer be saved.”

Schulman points to a recent case in which an administrative law judge said the FAA could not fine a man $10,000 for using a drone to shoot a promotional video, ruling that the agency had no authority over small unmanned aircraft.

The FAA’s logic could subject the “operator” of a paper aircraft or a toy balsa wood glider to government oversight, Judge Patrick G. Geraghty said in overturning what was the first-ever fine imposed on a drone operator.

Texas EquuSearch, Schulman says, has an even stronger argument because of the non-commercial purpose of its drone flights.

Miller regrets not having the drone technology available when he was looking for his daughter. “If we would have found her in the first couple of days, at least we would have been able to determine cause of death,” he said.

As long as his fleet remains grounded, he fears, “There’s a strong possibility we’ll find somebody dead that could have been found alive.”