On Friday afternoon an 86-year-old hunter from Hohestadt (Würzburg) in Germany goes back into the forest to check on a feeding place. He does not come back.

At around 8 pm that evening his wife gets worried and alerts the local fire department, which in turn informs the police. Soon after the hunter’s car is found but no sign of the man himself. More rescue workers are asked to help and before long ten search dogs, 30 firefighters, several policemen, and rescue workers of the Bavarian Red Cross and the Johanniter-Unfallhilfe are all looking for the missing hunter.

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Thermal imaging drone locates the hunter

The head of operations then decides to call for the help of the rapid deployment group FLIGHT of the Johanniter. Since six months now this group has a thermal imaging drone at their disposal, which they decide to use in the search for the missing 86-year-old German.

“After only five minutes of flight, we were able to locate a person on a field with the help of the thermal imager,” reports Thomas Witzel, head of operations at the Johanniter in Würzburg.

“It was a matter of luck that things went so fast. We just hit the right trajectory, ” states Christoph Fleschutz, press officer of the Johanniter in Lower Franconia to the German newspaper Main Post.

Only minutes later the paramedics are able to reach the hunter, who by now is suffering from severe hypothermia as he is stuck waist-deep in the mud with temperatures dropping quickly that time of night. The first aid workers are fighting to keep the man alive and are struggling with the mud themselves. Only with the help of a tractor provided by a neighboring farmer can the man be rescued. He was brought to the main hospital in Ochsenfurt, Germany.

“For the first time in the history of the ambulance service in Lower Franconia, a missing person could be found with the help of a drone and rescued from freezing”, the press officer of the Johanniter says proudly of the successful drone mission.

Drone was a recent addition to the rescue team’s equipment

Two and a half years ago, volunteers had suggested using a drone to aid in the search for missing people. It then took trying out various drone models as well as dealing with permits and regulations before they could start testing the drone in the spring of 2017. The drone was used for the first time in June during the fire of the Ochsenfurter sugar factory, where it provided the fire marshall with a birds-eye-perspective of the facilities and the way the fire was spreading.

In this case, the only alternative to the thermal imaging drone would have been a helicopter with similar equipment. Of course, helicopters are in much shorter supply, are much more expensive and its pilots cannot easily be trained. A drone outfitted with a thermal camera offers a clear advantage.

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