Search and Rescue

Finding Missing People, Kids and Pets from the Air


Drones have quickly become an irreplaceable tool for search and rescue teams everywhere. Whether it’s helping locate lost hikers, find missing animals and kids, or even helping adults with memory loss find their way home, drones can assist.

The value of the drones for search and rescue teams really shows in three main areas: responding quickly at a low cost, allowing the use of sensors such as thermal imaging and zoom cameras, and providing automated search coverage of a precise grid.

Local police and volunteer SAR teams have long relied on helicopters and airplanes to aid in locating missing persons, but these options are both expensive and slow. In contrast, drones like the Inspire 1 with a FLIR XT thermal camera are ready to fly in minutes, at a fraction of the cost of manned aircraft.  The XT2 version supports thermal and visual in a single, small camera!

Some drones, like the Matrice M210, can carry both thermal and visual sensors, meaning that you can locate people under almost any conditions. Flying with two distinct sensors together allows viewing both heat signatures and visible information, like body heat in a forest or a hunter’s orange cap on a snowy mountain.

When you need an exhaustive search pattern to guide your team’s ground crews, even lost-cost drones such as the Phantom 4 series can automatically fly a precise grid over several square miles while capturing still or video images. You can then view the footage live or downloaded and be assured that you’re searching in a systematic, logical way. This is just one of the many options for a low-cost search and rescue drone, so contact us today to learn more.

How Does a Thermal Imaging Drone Work?

Our eyes see just a small section of all the electromagnetic waves around us. We call this portion “visible light,” and each range of the spectrum is assigned a name you’re familiar with: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, etc. But what’s above and below this visible chunk of the spectrum? You’re no doubt familiar with many of the invisible portions, even though you’ve never seen them: microwaves, radio waves, X-Rays, ultraviolet, and other too numerous to name.

how thermal imaging works

Back To The Whiteboard

How can these concepts from your high school physics class help us see a person’s body heat in a dense forest? It turns out that just above visible light–with wavelengths longer than red light–is the infrared spectrum that contains the waves responsible for propagating heat. You’ve probably seen an iron rod heated until it glows orange, the light fading away as it cools. But even though the visible orange color is gone, the rod is still several hundred degrees (don’t touch!) and is radiating heat in the infrared spectrum. The visible colored light is gone, but the thermal light is still present and detectable by a thermal imaging drone.

Hot Iron

A drone’s thermal sensor can see this hot iron and show it in a different color, just like when it was still glowing-orange hot. Less dramatically, search and rescue drones pinpoint your body’s heat, close to 100º F, and shade it in a different color that easily contrasts with the cold forest floor.

What’s the Difference Between Thermal Imaging and Night Vision?

Night vision cameras rely on magnifying available light and displaying it back to you. Since night vision relies on reflected light, there has to be some available light, such as the moon or a street lamp, or you can’t see a subject at all.

Instead, a thermal imaging drone can see in total darkness because it’s relying on heat generated by the subject itself, whether it’s a warm-blooded animal (sadly, snakes are tough to spot on thermal cameras) or a leaking window that’s wasting your your energy bill. The thermal camera won’t show objects through the glass, but you can detect which parts of the window are hotter and colder, pinpointing any broken seals or poorly fitting frames that are leaking air.

Finally, unlike the magical imaging tools they use on the police dramas you see on your favorite streaming video service, a drone won’t allow you to watch thermal activity inside a house–you’ll need a more powerful, heavy standalone unit and possibly direct contact to see through walls.

Best Drones for Search and Rescue

The very nature of SAR operations is entirely unpredictable. You can be responding to a flood disaster one week and a searching for a wandering toddler the next. The key to any purchase is maximizing your flexibility so that you can respond well to any contingency.



The DJI Matrice M210 is by far the most flexible, configurable choice that lets you conquer a variety of mission profiles and field scenarios. You can event rent it as a pre-configured bundle with two cameras, one thermal and one zoom.

Designed to be highly configurable, the Matrice M210 has dual downward-facing camera ports so that you can fly with both the thermal XT sensor and the Z30 visible camera with an integrated 30X zoom lens. This setup is the best of both worlds and meets the needs of even the most demanding SAR teams. In the dual-battery configuration, the Matrice M210 can accomplish of up to 30 minutes on a charge, depending on sensor payload(s). Moreover, you’ll have live HD-quality video streaming back to your tablet or phone for the entire flight.

For a more consumer-oriented thermal imaging drone with a lower price, consider the DJI Inspire 1. The Inspire 1 has legs that fold while in the air, allowing unobstructed 360-degree panning of the single camera. Our convenient rental bundled with the FLIR XT allows you to quickly get up to speed with thermal technology without a large up front investment.

If you already have an Inspire 1, you can try out the FLIR XT alone, renting just the stabilized thermal camera before you make a purchase decision. Note that the Inspire 2 doesn’t work with the XT sensor, so you’ll need an original Inspire 1 or a Matrice series quadcopter.

Search and Rescue Drone Success Stories

Police and SAR teams across the world are already using search and rescue drones to make a difference in many lives. Here are some of our favorite success stories from across the web:

MOORE COUNTY (WTVD) — A missing child has been located thanks to the Moore County Sheriff’s Office’s drone. 

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Two lost hikers and their yellow Labrador were located with the help of a drone after they accidentally wandered off a trail in Pike National Forest in Colorado.

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An 81-year-old woman who was lost in a North Carolina cornfield on Sunday was found in less than 30 minutes after officials used a drone to locate her, a video released by police showed.

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