As the debate over the use of unmanned aircraft and their impact on privacy rages on, a Hill Country company that specializes in using drones for search and rescue and recovery missions is offering its drones for free to law enforcement agencies.
Gene Robinson's Wimberley based company RP Flight Systems has been operating drones since 2005. He's used them on thousands of missions in 29 states and 4 countries.
"There's a real science to search and rescue, search and recovery and this is just another tool to enhance the science that is already in place," Robinson said.
Within minutes of arriving on a scene, Robinson can launch one of his lightweight drones as easily as throwing a paper airplane.
In just seconds, the flying wing reaches its cruising altitude of 400 feet, the perfect height for finding a lost or missing person. From that height the drone can cover 1 square mile in about 10 minutes, much faster than a group of officers and volunteers on the ground can cover.
The drones feed back live video and take high resolution images that can narrow down a search area by locating targets.
"It saves them time, money and resources and it also protects the safety of the volunteers. We can fly over areas where you don't want to send people in," Robinson said. "You can pick up things like tennis shoes, pieces of clothing, a trail even, and it makes things a lot easier for the searchers when you give them a geo reference point, a latitude and longitude, and say here, there's a target right here, go look at it and they can go directly to it."
Robinson said when he gets the call to search for someone, it's often because all other attempts to locate the missing person have failed.
Over the years, Robinson has found more victims than survivors. Last May, Liberty County called him to find a missing 2-year-old. In a short period of time, the drone located the boy’s body in a river.
"We have recovered 10 victims so far," Robinson said. "We haven't had the opportunity to look for very many live people."
Due to ongoing privacy and safety concerns Robinson said some law enforcement agencies have been reluctant to use his services even though he doesn't charge them a penny.
"We do this completely as a charity and we don't charge anybody anything," Robinson said.
The FAA started cracking down on domestic drone use in 2007, effectively grounding most private drones or forcing them to operate in designated test flight areas until regulations can be hammered out.
Robinson is a real pilot and has obtained a special certificate of authority from the FAA to keep his drones flying.
Robinson understands the concerns about drones being used to spy on citizens, but said if regulated properly the benefits could far outweigh the concerns.
"Yes, these are a very powerful tool and, yes, they need to have oversight, but by the same token, they can reduce the amount of tax dollars that you have to spend to get the same level of protection that you expect form your law enforcement agency," Robinson said. "This is a service tool. If it saves a life, what's that worth?"