Port St. Lucie Police Department Using Drones to Help Locate Missing People

A child going missing is one of the worst nightmares a parent can face. It is something that happens every day. Out in public spaces like parks, beaches, or shopping centers, children can easily wander off accidentally. Kids even wander off from their own homes and become lost. Young kids may think they know where they are in their neighborhoods but can easily get confused. In most cases, children who wander off are found and reunited with their families. The key to bringing missing children home is taking immediate action.

All too often, movies and television shows give people the false impression that a missing person report cannot be filed until a certain time frame has elapsed. This is completely false, it is critical to notify the police as soon as you realize someone is missing, especially a child or someone with compromised health. Wisely, a family from Port St. Lucie, FL knew to call the police right away when they realized that 2 young children had wandered out and away from the house during a play date. And even more lucky for the family, the Port St. Lucie Police Department (PSLPD) has a drone program in place for just such situations.

On the afternoon of Sunday, January 3, 2021, the PSLPD responded to the 2200 block of SW Alminar St. where they found some very distraught parents. The parents had given the older children permission to go outside for a ride on a recreational vehicle. Wanting to join the big kids, the two younger children slipped out the front door without telling the parents. While one adult began to search the area surrounding the home, another called the police. The responding officers began searching the neighborhood to no avail, so they called in for backup.

Shortly thereafter, two more officers arrived at the house on SW Alminar St. to join the search. Officer Ghobrial is a designated drone pilot for the PSLPD who works alongside Officer Thayer who serves as a visual observer. As soon as they got out of their patrol car, Officers Ghobrial and Thayer had the DJI Mavic 2 Zoom drone up in the air. Officer Ghobrial began flying the drone in a grid pattern over the home, fanning out as he went. Standing beside him with the handheld monitor, Officer Thayer reported what he was seeing through the drone’s camera. The area around the home had plenty of spaces for the older children to zip around on the recreational vehicle. Many of these spaces were surrounded by banks of trees, tall grasses, and a small lake. The natural landscape was making it too difficult to spot the children from the ground. With the bird’s eye view from the drone’s zoom camera, the landscape proved no obstacle in finding the children.

Just a few minutes after the drone was launched, Officer Thayer could clearly see the children walking along the bank of a lake not far from the home. Officer Ghobrial hovered the drone over the children while Officer Thayer maintained constant visual confirmation of their location. Meanwhile, the parents rushed to the spot in their car to retrieve their children. It wasn’t until the children were safely in the car that the officers recalled and packed up the drone. This was not the first time that the PSLPD had successfully used one of their drones in a missing person case.

The PSLPD began its drone program about 2 years ago and has 9 drones at its disposal. The department has an entire specialty unit trained to operate the drones like Officers Ghobrial and Thayer. Many police departments use drones to achieve situational awareness in emergencies, collect evidence, manage traffic, or even in the pursuit of suspects. Officer Matt Reynolds explained that the primary way the PSLPD is using the drones is to search for missing people to avoid the unfortunate circumstance of having to report a death notice. “They are a cheap tool for us to deploy to help with the safety of life whether it be for a missing person,” said Officer Reynolds. “That could be an Alzheimer’s patient that’s run off. That could be two juveniles that have gone away or somebody that may have a mental health disorder.” He went on to say that in the past they would have to call in an aviation unit that is not only expensive for the department but often does not fit into the time frame necessary to find and rescue someone. While it only takes 5 minutes for PSLPD responding officers to deploy a drone, the department must receive a call from the concerning party as soon as possible.

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