Civilian Drones: Search and Rescue

November 02, 2015

Search and Rescue Drone Applications and Use

“Civilian Drones: Search and Rescue” is a documentary released in 2013.  The documentary discusses the bureaucratic challenges faced by search and rescue personnel that use or wish to use drones to assist in their operations. The primary challenges the documentary focuses on are restrictions put in place by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) which forbids the use of civilian drones for commercial purposes everywhere in the National Airspace System (NAS).

Issues Discussed

The documentary discusses the experiences of a specific search and rescue organization, Texas EquuSearch, which uses drones to assist its operations.  It discusses the potential benefits to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in search and rescue operations, to save time, coordinate operations, and find missing persons that a ground team might miss. The restriction on which the documentary focuses is the FAA’s ban on the use of any civilian drones for commercial purposes in the NAS.  The NAS is the airspace that includes all regulated air traffic in the United States.  Currently UAVs can only be operated in the NAS with a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) from the FAA; these certificates are only granted to government organizations and academic institutions.  Private sector entities can also receive special airworthiness certificates that allow them to operate UAVs in the NAS.  However these types of exceptions are rarely made; usually they are only granted to government organizations or private sector government contractors for military, law enforcement related, scientific, or educational applications.

Recent Developments

Since the making of the documentary in 2013, Texas EquuSearch has gone to court with the FAA, increasing both the significance and popularity of the film.  The lawsuit relates to a legal order issued by the FAA to Texas EquuSearch, instructing the organization to cease the use of UAVs in their civilian volunteer search and rescue efforts.  The order was issued on February 21, 2014, and Texas EquuSearch petitioned for review of it two months later, on April 21.  The petition focuses on the benefits the use of UAVs has created for the organization’s search and rescue efforts, including some specific cases where a UAV was able to locate a missing person or persons that a ground team missed.   Works Cited Egan, Patrick. "Civilian Drones the Documentary." SUAS News. SUAS News, 31 July 2013. Web. 21 Apr. 2016. <>. Subbaraman, Nidhi. "FAA Search-and-Rescue Drone Suit Could Have Widespread Impact." NBC News., 11 May 2014. Web. 21 Apr. 2016. <>. U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration, "Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Operational Approval," National Policy Notice, serial N 8900.207 (Washington, DC, 2013).

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