We recently chalked up a huge win in the category of “aerial discovery using drones”. When we were contacted by one of the major general aviation manufacturers about helping them recover pieces of one of their crashed airplanes, we jumped at the opportunity. It was not only a chance for us to show them what we could do, but it also enabled us to work directly with the FAA and the NTSB representatives that were working on the crash. We pride ourselves on doing things right, and were excited to showcase that to the “powers that be”.
The mission was simple: find the two pieces of the airplane that were missing. The solution was a little more complex. The area of interest was over 400 acres, and the parts were small. One piece was approximately 17″ x 13″ while the other more challenging item was 8″ x 3″, and there was no guarantee that the parts were in the specified area of interest. Our approach was to use mapping techniques to thoroughly cover the area in our search. In the end we visited the site several times, covered about 800 acres, and took over 2,200 photos.
We located the bigger piece of the airplane after the first day on the site. Our low flight altitude made it relatively easy to spot the item upon reviewing the photos. Once we located the item in the photographs, we reviewed the EXIF data of the and determined an accurate GPS location for the item. Using nothing more than a cell phone and the GPS data, we were able to walk to the item and recover it. Mission accomplished.
The smaller item was more challenging because of its size. Since it did not show up in visual inspections of the photos, we utilized image search software to process the photos, looking for specifically-colored pixels in the photographs. The search provided many leads that matched the pixel specifications, and allowed us to investigate the possibilities on site. Although none of the leads produced the item, it helped determine that the item was not in the area we covered.
The entire project was very satisfying and fun to work on. It exemplified the power that drone technology is bringing to so many different industries. Our participation in the search effort saved countless man hours and provided results that could not have been accomplished in any other way. Aerial discovery using drones has helped us many times in our work, but this project presented some challenges that we were happy to take on and conquer.