Thermal Drone Used To Save Woman Missing In Rugged Northwest Wyoming

A video released Thursday shows how a drone equipped with a thermal camera was used to find a special needs woman lost in the rugged Wyoming wilderness near Pinedale. The thermal camera showed her body heat signature moving through the woods.

AR
Andrew Rossi

March 08, 20245 min read

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

A video released Thursday shows how a drone equipped with a thermal camera was used to find a special needs woman lost in the rugged Wyoming wilderness near Pinedale.

A Pinedale woman was saved from a potentially tragic situation thanks to the technology and skills of the Sublette County Sheriff’s Office Drone Team.

The SCSO released a video report of the rescue Thursday afternoon, showing the Feb. 19 response to a report of a special needs adult who had left her home and “taken off in the night,” according to the report.

The sheriff’s office and Tip Top Search and Rescue responded to the call, and once in the search area launched a drone equipped with a thermal camera to search for the missing adult. Because of its thermal detection technology, it’s a valuable tool for a night search.

After several hours, the missing woman was spotted about 3 three miles from her home with the drone, her body heat signature clearly outlining the image of a person moving around and through the woods.

First responders were guided to the woman’s location, and she was safely recovered and returned home after being checked by medical personnel.

Administrative Sergeant Travis Bingham with SCSO said the drone team made a critical difference in an urgent situation. The missing woman could have easily succumbed to hypothermia before a ground team found her.

“She was a couple of miles ahead of responders from where she was last seen,” he said. “If they had kept following tracks trying to find her, they would’ve had a harder time and a slower response. The drone cut down the time they would have spent in the elements by themselves.”

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Taking To The Air

Sublette County was one of the first counties in Wyoming to add high-end drones to its law enforcement arsenal. Bingham is one of the pilots on the drone team, although he was not part of the Feb. 19 rescue.

Bingham said the drone’s thermal camera was a huge asset. The camera detected the missing woman’s heat signature in the frigid darkness with enough resolution that the woman’s body was immediately discernible from the deer nearby, which it also detected.

Drones have become a vital tool with many different uses in law enforcement and search and rescue operations. There’s the obvious benefit of searching a large area from the air, unencumbered by Wyoming’s rugged terrain, but drones already provide more than just eyes in the skies.

For instance, Bingham said the drone team used its drone to guide first responders to the woman’s location, sharing critical information in real time.

“We can stream what we're seeing as drone pilots to the phones of responding officers and back to dispatch,” he said. “Then, we were using radio to relay changes, share what we're seeing and coordinate efforts with multiple pilots.”

As drones become more sophisticated, they can be modified to carry different attachments to assist in whatever capacity is needed. Drones can carry loudspeakers to communicate with victims and suspects, spotlights to improve visibility in dark places, and floatation devices and other low-weight items that can be dropped when and where they’re needed.

“There's a lot of possibilities, and it's always changing,” Bingham said. “Technology is always advancing.”

No Better Place

More agencies are acquiring and using drones for a wide range of tasks. However, as the Feb. 19 incident proves, Bingham believes a state like Wyoming could find drones especially beneficial.

“Being as remote as we are, getting a quicker response, and being able to cover a big area from above and see a bigger area than on foot was huge,” he said.

The Sublette County Sheriff’s Office has already used its drones in several search and rescue operations, crash reconstruction and crowd control. The county recently received a grant to buy drones specifically rated for indoor use.

In mid-February, 46-year-old William Lowery barricaded himself inside a house after allegedly shooting and killing Sheridan Police Department Sgt. Nevada Krinkee. A standoff between Lowery and dozens of law enforcement officers from multiple agencies lasted for 32 hours before it was resolved.

Bingham referenced the Sheridan standoff as a situation where an indoor drone could be helpful and ensure law enforcement officers' safety.

“If we have a barricaded subject in a house or a building, like the Sheridan incident a couple of weeks ago, we could send an indoor drone inside and not necessarily put deputies in danger right away and assess what's going on,” he said.

Drones have become a valued tool in Sublette County. In the future, the sheriff’s office might get larger drones that can carry heavier equipment, like range finders and infrared laser pointers.

Larger drones could also carry larger batteries, keeping them in the air longer. As helpful as it was, the thermal camera-equipped drone used to locate the missing woman had to land several times so its depleted battery could be replaced and recharged.

Nevertheless, the Feb. 19 incident in Pinedale demonstrated the value of a well-equipped drone team in Wyoming. Without that effort from the air, the woman might not have been located for several more hours, increasing the likelihood of a tragic ending.

As far as Bingham is concerned, the sky’s the limit when it comes to the potential applications of drones.

“I don't want to say (the possibilities are) limitless,” he said. “There's always limits. But your imagination determines what you can do with it and its uses as (technology) grows and changes.”

Andrew Rossi can be reached at arossi@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Andrew Rossi

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