Thermal drones influential in searches across state parks, TPWD says

Thermal imaging video from a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department drone showed a search that took place earlier in November.

The video showed law enforcement officers approaching a truck. It was driven to a remote spot by a Bell County man who was lost on Fort Hood. The rescue came as the temperature in Central Texas was about to drop, according to Lt. Matthew Bridgefarmer. He manages the TPWD Drone program.

"When he stepped out of the vehicle, that definitely, you know, told me we're done good work today," said Lt. Bridgefarmer.

The Bell County search is one of three missions state Game Wardens flew in for. A thermal drone camera located an East Texas shooting suspect hiding in bushes. Another drone, on November 3, tracked down a missing man south of Stephenville.

"As far as rapid deployment, definitely the drones are bloodhounds," said Lt. Bridgefarmer.

Texas Parks and Wildlife has a fleet of 70 drones and 50 pilots. They started with the DJI Mavic platform and have added the Aultel Evo 2. Missions are not limited to search and rescue, they include disaster response, mapping, wildlife research and park site inspections.

"The bulk of that fleet, about 90% of those game worn drones were donated to our department through the gear up for game warden program. And so that's landowners and citizens who value who we are. And what our mission said is basically buying us the equipment to go out there and save lives. So that's a phenomenal asset and resource out there that really makes it rewarding that people value what we're doing," said Lt. Bridgefarmer.

Expanding the fleet may soon get a little difficult because some of the most popular drones are made in China. Several federal agencies have stopped using those brands because of National Security concerns. Local drone expert Gene Robinson believes more bans are coming.

"There are states, Florida is one of the first, that has banned the use of DJI products, which is Chinese products. And it's been quite the blow to their enforcement and law enforcement and public safety arms because they've stocked up quite significantly on that that line, and they're going to have to replace it. I think they were given 18 months, which was 18 months from this last March, to replace all of their equipment with American made equipment," said Robinson.

Locating a suitable American-made drone can take time. That could ground some programs, according to Robinson.

"There's going to be an adjustment period for sure, and there are going to be American manufacturers that are going to have to ramp up, step up with a significant amount of investment, I must say. And unfortunately, early adopters and initial investors in the industry back in 2007, 2008 got quite burned, and they're hesitant to invest any more money into this. Now, again, emerging drone industry," said Robinson.

A Bill has been filed for the upcoming session to analyze security threats in Texas. The legislation includes finding out how drones could be used to attack highways and bridges. HB 560 was filed by State Rep Richard Raymond (D) Laredo.