This Virginia County Tracks Missing Persons With a Drone


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Project Lifesaver offered local law enforcement the air support it needed.

When the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office needed air support in the past, it had to request helicopter assistance from a neighboring Virginia county like Fairfax.

The flight time was about 20 to 22 minutes, and during prolonged incidents the helicopter would inevitably need to return to its home county to refuel.

Understandably, Loudoun County wanted its own asset, so in July 2017 it turned to a drone program as an alternative: Project Lifesaver.

An international program started two decades ago, Project Lifesaver provides electronic wristband trackers to seniors and other people with medical conditions—like autism or Alzheimer’s—who are likely to wander off and get lost. Should that happen, a friend or loved one can trigger the wristband’s beacon to help local law enforcement locate the missing person quickly.

Lockheed Martin’s Indago unmanned aircraft system, or UAS, is currently the only drone capable of carrying Project Lifesaver’s antenna payload for tracking missing persons.

Loudoun County purchased the drone and payload for $96,000, but they didn’t have a Federal Aviation Administration license to operate. So the county partnered with Falls Church, Virginia-based consultant Evans Incorporated.

Evans Incorporated helps law enforcement agencies and local residents learn to operate drones safely. Through the partnership, Loudoun County law enforcement and residents are trained to use drones, and the Sheriff’s Office obtains waivers needed so its drone pilots can operate them at night.

In December 2017, Loudoun County was contacted by the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office about a 92-year-old hunter who’d gone missing in the mountains. That agency and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management had suspended its search over the first night, so Loudoun County brought its drone and six search-and-rescue team members.

Master Deputy Matt Devaney, a licensed drone pilot with Loudoun County, was able to locate the missing man, who wasn’t a Project Lifesaver participant, within 20 minutes of launch with just the drone’s camera.

“Besides that, we’ve taken it up any chance we can,” Devaney told Route Fifty. “If they’re on the Project Lifesaver program, it’s a better tool.”

There are about 130 Project Lifesaver participants in Loudoun County at last count, Devaney said.

At the 2018 Greater Washington Contractor Awards in November, Evans Incorporated won the program of the year category for its work in Loudoun County, and the Sheriff’s Office was similarly honored by the Virginia Association of Counties.

Since Project Lifesaver began, 3,498 people have been located with perimeter systems and antennae.

“But that can take a lot of time if the person has wandered several miles away from where they should be,” said Tara Stearman, senior UAS analyst with Evans Incorporated. “You’re able to get airborne and cover more ground with a drone.”

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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