Texas search group resumes drone use

JUAN A. LOZANO, Associated Press

HOUSTON (AP) — A Texas-based group that had been embroiled in a legal fight over the use of drones in its searches for missing persons resumed using the unmanned aircraft on Wednesday, the first time it had done so after a favorable appeals court ruling earlier this month.

Texas EquuSearch is using a drone in its search for a 57-year-old Montgomery man who has been missing since July 9. The drone is being used to search an area overrun by tall grass and vegetation behind a motel in Livingston — located about 70 miles northeast of Houston — where the missing man’s truck was found on Tuesday.

The group had stopped using drones in its searches in February after it received what it described as an order in an email from the Federal Aviation Administration prohibiting the nonprofit organization from using the unmanned aircraft.

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Texas EquuSearch sued the FAA and earlier this month an appeals court ruled the warning the group had received to stop using drones didn’t have any legal consequences.

In its ruling, the appeals court said it can’t review the case because the email Texas EquuSearch had received didn’t represent the FAA’s final conclusion on the use of drones. Final rules on drone use are expected next year.

Tim Miller, Texas EquuSearch’s founder, said the drone was extremely helpful on Wednesday as it was able to carefully search areas that would have been difficult for the group’s volunteers to do so on foot or even on all-terrain vehicles.

“It’s very, very hot out here today, people are getting tired, having to take several breaks and stay hydrated. The drone gets stuff done a lot faster than our ground searches,” Miller said in a telephone interview from the search site.

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Miller said he did not notify the FAA of the drone’s use because the search area was not near federal airspace, such as surrounding an airport.

The FAA declined to comment on Wednesday’s drone use by Texas EquuSearch, said agency spokesman Lynn Lunsford.

Gene Robinson, who operated the drone on Wednesday and whose nonprofit RP Flight Systems Inc. provides the unmanned aircraft to the search group, said that during a flight, the drone usually takes 50 to 100 photographs of a search area. Those images are reviewed and if nothing turns up, the drone— which weighs about 4 ½ pounds and has a 56-inch wingspan — is sent up again.

The volunteer search group is financed through private donations and has participated in such high-profile cases as the search for Natalee Holloway, the U.S. teenager who disappeared in 2005 in Aruba, and the search for 2-year-old Caylee Anthony in Florida.

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The organization is credited with returning 300 missing people alive to their loved ones. Miller has said they’ve also recovered the remains of nearly 180 people who had been reported missing. He credited 11 of those recoveries to drone use beginning in 2005.