Drones are used for everything from saving lives to land surveying, but training lags behind

The distress call went out at 4:15 p.m. Two hikers and a dog got lost in the woods after mistakenly straying from a trail near Devil’s Head, a mountain summit in the Rampart Range 40 miles south of Denver.

Just two years ago, locating the lost hikers might have taken all night, according to Morris Hansen, vice president of the Douglas County Search and Rescue team, which responded to the call.

This time, search-and-rescue officials needed just two hours.

The difference was an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, which saved the crew hours of foot-hunting and hundreds of dollars on expensive search-and-rescue efforts.

Ten years ago, everyday use of civilian drones sounded more like science-fiction than social policy. Today, falling costs and improving technologies have helped launch the aviation vehicles in the public sector, where UAVs are used for everything from surveying and mapping to search and rescue, and from law enforcement to fighting wildfires.

Still, despite growing recognition of the technology’s potential, many civic entities such as the Douglas County Search and Rescue team have never received formal UAV training from a public agency. Instead, Hansen, a drone recreationalist who spearheaded Douglas County Search and Rescue’s UAV implementation, has been applying lessons from his private hobby for the public good.

“Firsthand knowledge on using drones is the biggest gap that exists today,” he said. “Putting the thing up in the air doesn’t solve all of the problems. You have to know when to put it up there, what you’re doing up there, what camera to use up there and how to be safe.”

Although the nascent technology could save lives, time and taxpayer dollars, drones have only begun to achieve liftoff in Colorado’s public sector.

In June, state legislators passed House Bill 1070, which tasked a subdivision of the Colorado Department of Public Safety — the Center for Excellence — with conducting a study on how to integrate unmanned aircraft systems in public agencies, from firefighting and search and rescue to accident reconstruction and emergency management.

The bill — which also stipulated that the study consider privacy concerns, costs and timeliness of deployment — aims to help steer public agencies toward best practices.

“We want to get to the nuts and bolts of what works in an unbiased way,” said Bob Gann, who holds a doctorate in electrical engineering and serves as the center’s deputy director. “We evaluate systems and platforms and give others the tools and recommendations to implement their program.”

Absent clear guidelines and overhead support or funding, many public agencies looking to implement unmanned aviation systems have faced early problems obtaining drones, training and licensing. (The Center for Excellence relies on gifts, grants and private donations; HB 1070 provided no funding.) Such barriers can cost agencies thousands of dollars and drain dozens of hours.

“It’s a little bit of the Wild West in terms of UAVs,” Gann said. “We’re really in the early stages of people using them in a programmatic way. We’re trying to get away from everybody doing their own thing to a more pragmatic approach that agencies can follow.”