TEXAS - The Texas Game Wardens are showing how their drone program helped track down a missing person out of Callahan County.
One night in early June, drone operator Michael Hummert was called to help find a missing man with health issues. He launched a heat seeking drone.
"About 30-35 minutes into flying, I located a heat signature in the woods about 500 yards north of the residence where the male had taken off walking from," Hummert said.
He was able to get GPS coordinates to ground units.
"They were able to walk to that area, and I was directing them over the radio, watching everything in the drone at the same time, and they were able to make contact with the male," he said.
The man was thirsty, but overall OK.
Hummert has been working with a thermal capable drone for about eight months.
While it can take hours for a ground team to look for someone, he says the search and rescues he's done with a drone were finished in 30 minutes or less. Many cases are elderly people who've wandered away from home.
"That just shows the power of those thermal cameras and how good of a tool that they are," Hummert said.
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Lt. Game Warden and program supervisor Matthew Bridgefarmer says the drone program started in 2018. There are 50 active pilots in the department across the state. They have a fleet of 80 drones, many of which are privately funded. Some are older and larger, and others are newer and smaller with thermal imaging.
"That is definitely what has increased our capabilities as far as search and rescue success," Bridgefarmer said.
The drone can show variations in temperature. Sometimes, humans show up cooler than things that retain lots of heat, like rocks on a hot day.
The camera is a very sensitive piece of equipment, that's the technology side of things, but there is an artistic side of things being able to interpret and read that thermal image," Bridgefarmer said.
He says they average 25-40 missions per month across the state. Besides searching for missing people, drones are also used for finding suspects, accident reconstruction, mapping for research, and disaster response. The view can be streamed remotely for other team members to see.
Game Wardens can help any agency that needs aerial support, and they say it's a time saver in all sorts of cases, especially when time is of the essence.
"It's an amazing tool," Hummert said.