500 lives rescued – and still counting

It is a real shame that almost five years since drone technology started making inroads into the African continent, their success stories in official government and other public sector circles to date is through Zipline’s medical delivery drones that have made thousands of flights across the Rwandan undulating and hilly terrain; and the Ghanaian rural landscape, delivering emergency medical supplies, and Coronavirus fighting equipment since the pandemic broke.

But that is as far as drones go in government applications in Africa – perhaps save for when search and rescue drones flew over the devastation of Cyclone Idai in Zimbabwe in March 2019, to seek survivors and assess the scale of the damage; and even then, it was private players playing their humanitarian part in helping a government in distress.

The Zimbabwe government did not wake up to acknowledge the critical part drones played in taking stock of the destruction caused by the cyclone in the eastern parts of the country. With drone technology still being viewed with suspicion along official corridors of power, it might be time yet until we see an entry on the DJI Drone Rescue Map about police officers public sector workers in Africa rescuing a lost soul from the woods.

The world will not stop for that to arrive though; and the Chinese drone manufacturer’s map keeps ticking – to the point that they have just recorded 500th rescue mission in which a drone was directly involved.

It happened just this October in Cass County, Missouri in the USA, when 93-year old Chris Fairchild left her husband for a walk around the block – and never returned. Worried, her husband called the Cass County Sherriff’s Department to report that his wife had stepped outside for a walk and – four hours later – had still not returned.

The police responded and combed the immediate area. But Chris was nowhere to be found.

It was time to call in the drone.

“The Cass County Sheriff’s Office has in its inventory a DJI Matrice 210 with FLIR camera that was donated in 2019 by the Sheriff’s Office Auxiliary,” explained the Cass Sherriff’s Department in a statement following the rescue. “The UAV gives deputies the ability to search large areas quickly and the thermal cameras can see heat signatures. Deputies deployed the UAV and in less than five minutes located the missing woman in a field about a quarter of a mile from her house. Deputies and EMS personnel responded to her location and found her exhausted and missing a shoe, but otherwise in good health.”

Drone video footage released by the Sherriff show Chris as a stationary yellow dot in the middle of the woods, with the pilot, Major Kevin Tieman, guiding on-foot officers towards her location. When the police found her, Mrs Fairchild was exhausted and had lost a shoe but was unharmed. When she spotted the drone overhead, she felt like screaming, she said

“I kept saying, Come on, I’m here! Come on, I’m here!”

The rescue of Mrs Fairchild was the 500th to be recorded the DJI rescue map, which plots life saving incidents where drones have played a starring role all over the world. The company introduced the interactive map in a bid to prove how drone technology can play an indispensable role in saving people’s lives in critical circumstances. The 500 lives recorded so far are from 296 rescue incidents across 29 countries.

So far, Africa only that one entry on the map, recorded from 2016 when Zipline made one its very first deliveries in Rwanda – flying with blood sachets to save the life of a two-year old malaria patient.

“This is an excellent use of current technology to help our citizens,” Cass County Sheriff Jeff Weber said. “The ability to deploy a UAV in these types of situations saves time and resources, especially when time is of the essence. Every minute counts,”

Rescue number 494 had happened on September 30 in a place called Split in Croatia – just a fortnight before Mrs Fairchild walked into the woods – when the Croatian Mountain Rescue Service drone found a man who had left home threatening to kill sitting at the edge of a breakwater.

Earlier in September, rescuers in the city of Boao on Hainan Island, China, used a DJI drone to locate and rescue three surfers who had fallen into the ocean and could not swim to shore.

“Just a few years ago, drones were an experimental technology for innovators in public safety, and civilians with drones often volunteered to help the professionals in emergencies,” said Romeo Durscher, DJI Senior Director of Public Safety Integration. “Today, public safety agencies across the world have adopted drones as a standard piece of equipment, and drones save people from peril every few days. It’s an astonishing success story for public safety, and for the people who are alive today because of drones.”

One hopes that public safety institutions in Africa are taking note, and will not delay, or wait for disaster to happen first before adding drone technology to the public safety repertoire. Lately, there have been moves by the South African and Zimbabwean governments to introduce surveillance drones to the respective countries’ borders – but one gets the feeling that these drones will be put in place to deter crimes like illegal immigration, rather than rescue stranded people.

“With more than 500 people now rescued by drones operated under basic rules, we can see how reasonable regulations with low barriers to entry literally save lives, and how useful expanded drone operations at night and over people will be when they are permitted at scale,” said Brendan Schulman, DJI Vice President of Policy & Legal Affairs. “The successful use of drones in emergencies also starkly illustrates the crucial benefits to society that are placed in jeopardy when policy proposals seek to restrict or limit access to drone technology, or raise the costs of such equipment to public safety officials.”


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