Cellphones and GPS locators aren’t the only changes affecting wilderness users. Drones are also part of the ranger tool kit.
Bruce Lomnitzer, a full-time ranger since 1999, always brings one of his three drones with him when he’s out in the woods. While he hasn’t found a missing person yet with a drone, he says that’s more about his ability to get to the right place to use them effectively rather than the drones themselves.
“The property we’re covering is so large that it’s not that the drone didn’t do the job,” he says. “It’s just that I wasn’t in the right place.”
Drones can carry thermal imaging cameras that “see” the heat from a human, for instance, rather than everything else in the landscape. A drone can also carry a camera that takes multiple pictures.
Part of the drawback to using drones is the park landscape. The thick canopy of trees makes it hard for a drone to fly, much less capture consistent, useful pictures. Thermal imaging works best when the trees are leafless, for instance. “If there is a canopy of evergreens and the snow is over the top of the trees, you wouldn’t see me under it unless I was moving,” Lomnitzer says.
When he first began using drones, Lomnitzer thought they would take the place of humans. “The reality is that the type of searches we do in the Adirondacks are such big fields and areas that you’ll never replace humans unless it can fly itself,” he says.
Still, Lomnitzer feels sure drones will get their day eventually. Like cell phones, the technology is changing rapidly. “I’m sure there’s somebody working on a program that instead of me looking for colors or images there will be a program that will see it.”
Perhaps. Scott van Laer, a ranger who represents the rangers’ union, has a more wait-and-see attitude. “A drone is not going to carry someone off a mountain with a broken leg,” he says. ”Drones are like dogs—there’s a limited scope where they’re very useful.”