Largest Recorded Drone Search-and-Rescue (SAR) Operation Gets Underway in Rural Wisconsin

Drones can perform a vast array of aerial missions – far more quickly, cheaply and sustainably than ground-based vehicles, particularly when operating at scale.  But none of these missions is more compelling and poignant than the use of unmanned aerial aircraft to find and rescue lost and missing persons whose lives are in peril.

The China-based drone company, DJI has documented more than a thousand successful SAR missions conducted across the globe with DJI drones, many of them equipped with special infrared thermal imaging cameras that can readily identify persons at night based on their heat signature alone.  Hundreds of lives have been saved, and untold family loss and trauma averted, through these rapid life-saving drone missions.  Typically, public safety agencies lead the effort,  but they often receive critical support from concerned and agile drone hobbyists.

SAR drones are about to receive their biggest test yet in rural Wisconsin.  Some 70 separate drone teams from around the state have just been called into action in a massive effort to find a missing three-year old, Elijah Vue, from the small town of Two Rivers in Manitowoc County in the state’s remote northeast.

Law enforcement, sheriff and fire departments as well as local farm owners and churches are combining their efforts nearly round the clock to try to find the boy, who was first reported missing over a month ago, on February 20.  Some details about his disappearance have been provided by his parents, who’ve been arrested and jailed for child neglect and endangerment.  But police search teams, who began their effort with ground-based surveyors and K-9 patrols, are no closer to finding the missing toddler.

Given the length of time Vue may have been exposed to the elements, possibly without food and water, prospects for finding him alive are dimming, officials admit.  But they haven’t given up hope.  And finding the young boy, even if deceased, will be critical to consoling his parents and relatives and bringing much-needed closure to the six-week long affair.

The massive drone effort is being coordinated by the Wisconsin Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) in conjunction with Two Rivers police who believe Vue may still be in a heavily wooded area just west of the small town.  Drones with high-powered cameras are especially effective for searching large areas quickly and for detecting human forms through thick foliage and even in buildings that might otherwise conceal them.  The round-the-clock drone search, currently in its third day, will continue over the weekend.

Drones aren’t the only element of the search.  Rafts with divers are patrolling local waterways while teams of community volunteers are conducting sweeps of nearby fields.

If any state response team can find Vue, it’s likely to be Wisconsin’s. The Badger State is known to have one of the highest concentrations of law enforcement agencies deploying drones anywhere in the country – close to a hundred.  Wisconsin is also home to a large number of private sector drone associations,  including Medford-based Wings of Hope Search and Rescue, founded in 2018, which coordinates its operations with first-responders in Wisconsin but also in Michigan, Minnesota, Tennessee and South Carolina.  A separate Wisconsin-based drone association, Fido Works, founded by a part-time firefighter, coordinates SAR missions to find lost and missing pets.

Because of their skill and dedication, drone responders in Wisconsin are accustomed to finding lost and missing persons quickly.  In fact, many groups claim a success rate of 80% or more.  But the current SAR effort in Manitowoc County was late in coming – and failure is still a possibility.

Last year, Wings of Hopes Search and Rescue called off its furious days-long search for a missing boater,  Tyler Doyle, whose boat sank after taking on water.  The search combined boats equipped with underwater sonar and 3D imaging with cadaver dogs and drones.  Multiple agencies had participated in the effort, which was coordinated by the state Department of Natural Resources.  But in the end, they still came up empty.

In a Facebook posting shortly after he pulled his team from the river, Wings of Hope founder Brad Smith told his group’s followers he’d “just made the hardest decision one has to make in search and rescue.”

Searchers for Elijah Vue in Manitowoc County are still hoping not to make that announcement.  As searchers close in on the boy’s last known whereabouts, a definitive conclusion to the ordeal is likely close at hand.

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