How drones proved themselves a powerful tool for search and rescue

Courtesy S.W.A.R.M.
Courtesy S.W.A.R.M.

Eric Garcia went missing in California 2013.

The search area for him was 40 miles along. Officials argued over whose jurisdiction is was, and the search was losing resources.

That’s when Garcia’s fiancé called their friend Jim Bowers, a full-time artist and drone hobbyist of 15 years.

“She asked me, ‘could you use my drone to help find Eric?’” Bowers said during a speech at International Drone Day in Las Vegas, Nevada. “I didn’t know what to say. I had never used a drone for search and rescue before, but I couldn’t say no.”

Bowers spent 4 days flying all over cliff faces, canyons and the road Garcia had been supposedly driving on.

“We kept using my drones to look back on the cliff faces,” he said.

The drone was able to help search team narrow down the area to 4 miles, sending out four people on motorcycles to continue the search.

The search led Bowers to start a network of volunteers to carry out search and rescue missions like this one, but on an international scale.

His organization? It’s called S.W.A.R.M. (Search With Aerial RC Multi-rotor). It’s a network where anyone qualified with a drone that had FPV capabilities could use the network to volunteer their time and search for missing people.

S.W.A.R.M. now has over 3,000 volunteer pilots in 54 countries around the world. The organization runs as a volunteer only network and does not operate through any law enforcement or emergency agencies.

Bowers’ first-ever drone search and rescue mission eventually found Garcia.

“He had come up on I-80, slid off the freeway and hit a tree,” Bowers said.

He was killed in the accident.

That’s the way most search and rescue stories involving drones turn out, Bowers said. While it’s tragic losing a loved one, the drone’s ability to find the body can provide the family with much-needed closure.

“The family was grateful I put my drone in the air to help narrow the search field down,” he said. “It’s not a matter of whether they’re alive or dead. The family needs to know what happened.”

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