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As Ken Druce and others staged a search and rescue mission for three missing campers on a farm in Virginia earlier this summer, they made sure to have plenty of charged batteries. Mapping a 65-acre area using drones was going to require a lot of energy.

The three missing campers — actually cardboard cutouts — along with sleeping bags, tents and other camping supplies were randomly spread out in the search area during the recent search and rescue challenge.

The goal of the exercise was to find people, or at least clues of their whereabouts, by scanning the ground using cameras mounted on unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones.

Searching an area roughly equivalent to 30 full-sized soccer fields proved to be time-consuming. The mission was a success, though, and the teams learned a lot in the process, Druce said.

Four teams from St. Mary’s County joined one other team from Texas in the event organized by the D.C. Drone Users Group and held on the farm outside of Manassas. Three of the teams included young cadets from the local Civil Air Patrol squadron.

Col. Lawrence Trick, the St. Mary’s squadron commander, said the group’s cadets are familiar with UAVs through aerospace education, and have participated in exercises at Patuxent River Naval Air Station’s Webster Field.

“It’s a purely educational experience, seeing what’s coming,” Trick said.

He said that the Civil Air Patrol participates in real search and rescue missions, but for now uses traditional manned-aircraft, not drones, during such operations.

“I found it valuable to look at the next step of what technology can bring to search and rescue,” David Webster, a captain with St. Mary’s Composite Civil Air Patrol, said.

He said the competition was a good opportunity to see how to deploy drones as resources, even though their exact use in real missions still needs to be worked out.

He envisions that a drone could help look around or over a cliff for a downed plane or missing person, potentially saving days of searching.

Druce, who works for a Navy contractor and has his own start-up business, said the Civil Air Patrol is a good partner for this endeavor.

“We’re going to start working with them ... to actually augment their search capabilities,” he said.

During the recent search and rescue competition, Druce’s team watched a screen that showed what their drone was seeing in real time.

Another team used both live viewing and recorded footage that they could look through at a slower, more detailed pace. That method worked well, Druce said.

Another team simply mapped the entire area using high-resolution images.

The groups hoped to learn what techniques work best in search and rescue missions, with the ultimate goal of helping to save lives.

Once the missing cardboard campers were located, a drone was sent to deliver an emergency drop box with first aid supplies. In a real rescue operation, Druce said, those boxes could contain medical supplies, food, emergency shelter and other items that could help those lost stay alive until rescuers could reach them.

The single-prop drones — essentially modified model airplanes — had a flight time of about 45 minutes to one hour, based on available battery power.

The multi-rotor drones could only stay in the sky for between 15 to 20 minutes before needing to return for a recharge or new battery, Druce said.

Druce has a start-up technology business focused on agriculture, search and rescue, and other uses for drones.

“They’re going to do the dull and dangerous types of work,” he said of drones in the future.

The autonomous drones are programed ahead of time to perform specific maneuvers and search patterns once they are in the sky.

Programming the best altitude for the Civil Air Patrol drones to fly was a big challenge, he said. The search area contained a valley surrounded by rolling hills with fields and trees.

Too high, and the images would be hard to view. Too low, and the pilots took a risk of running into a tree.

Two teams did encounter the latter problem, which highlights the need for developing automatic collision avoidance systems, Druce said. The teams were able to eventually recover their UAVs.

He noted that the heavy cloud cover on the day of the event could have hampered the use of satellite imagery. The drones fly well below the cloud level.

Druce said he hopes to organize another search and rescue exercise this fall.

jyeatman@somdnews.com