Drones program seen as safer way to search for missing people at Grand Canyon

Search and Rescue is nothing new for the National Park Service, especially at the Grand Canyon. What is new, however, is how helicopter crews and ground search teams get help from above.

Drones are seen as a safer way to search for missing hikers and tourists who take a bad step.

"We started the drone program up last Fall, 2016," said Justin Jager, Interagency Aviation Officer with the Grand Canyon National Park. He runs the aviation program there, and said the drones allow them to search the canyon, without risking more lives.

"Sending someone over on a rope, or doing a low, slow flight, we can send the UAs over, find the person and make a determination if they need assistance at that point," said Jager. "Or if its obviously a deceased person, we can hold off on the operation until there is a safer time to go down and retrieve the body."

Grand Canyon can be a dangerous place, if one is not careful. One in 400,000 visitors die there. In most cases, due to heat or dehydration. With that said, there are plenty of falls as well.

"There are a lot of falls over the canyon edge," said Jager. "So that's probably the main use of these drones."

Since the start of the drone program, no one has been found alive yet. Recently, during a search of Tapeats Creek, a drone discovered the body of one hiker who was apparently swept away.

"We flew the entire thing over a few days," said Brian Stone, an NPS Pilot. "We viewed it live as we were doing it, but it was better to come back to a TV, and view the HD footage off the GoPro."

They use a 3DR solo drone with a GoPro camera, because it is small enough to hike miles with.

"We can put it in a fairly comfortable backpack, and go for a nice hike with it," said Stone.

Just like any commercial drone user, NPS pilots must comply with FAA regulations, and keep the drone in sight at all times.

"It just gives us more information," said Stone. It's not going to replace a helicopter. It's just a way to give us more information on a place we really can't see."

The drones are used for emergencies only, and private drone flying is not allowed within park limits, not even for FOX 10's drone. Jager said there is a safety issue involved. Jager also said the NPS is evaluating new drones that may help them on future missions.