WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH — During a joint training exercise near Masonboro Inlet last week, Pender EMS and Fire lost a $26,000 drone to the ocean when it ran out of battery power while fighting high winds nearly a mile offshore.
The DJI Matrice 210, equipped with a $13,000 camera unit capable of thermal imaging, was providing aerial surveillance for boat crews practicing rescue operations of ‘stranded’ swimmers near the south end of Wrightsville Beach on February 27. The exercise included crews from the United States Coast Guard, New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, Pender County Sheriff’s Office, Wilmington Police Department, and Wrightsville Beach Fire and Police.
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According to Pender EMS and Fire Chief Woody Sullivan, the drone’s battery allows for a maximum 24-minute flight time, but on its return trip it required more power than expected due to 15-mile-per-hour winds.
“The bird went down in 14 minutes,” Sullivan said.
A choice to ditch it
Rather than attempting to land the drone on one of the boats participating in the exercise, Sullivan said the safer option was to ditch the high-tech device into the ocean. There will be an internal investigation into the incident, according to Sullivan, one that he expects to reveal certain changes to protocol when navigating over open waters during high winds.
“We’re going to have to adapt our protocols to that. And that’s why we’re going to do the internal investigation,” Sullivan said. “The return home will be much sooner, we will have less flight time over the water, and we’re going to have to change out batteries much quicker.”
Sullivan, Deputy Chief Scott Sills, and drone pilot Noah Hoffer showed a detailed flight log captured during the incident — similar to a plane’s black box — on Friday afternoon using a monitor inside the Pender County Emergency Operations Center.
“Once he identified there was no way to get back they just identified a place to safely ditch it in the water,” Sills said. “At 22 feet [elevation], we knew the battery was dying, and we knew we were not going to make it home. So at that point, under risk management, what is our last option?”
According to Sills, the internal investigation will involve two drone pilots outside of the department looking at “what we could’ve done better.”
Hoffer said the drone’s pilot was operating the device at the south end of Wrightsville Beach and was in full control during its emergency descent.
This was the first major incident in the two years the department has been using a fleet that now consists of five drones, according to Sullivan.
“After 642 flights, that’s not bad. And a lot of these missions are not flown in the most ideal conditions either,” Sullivan said.
A necessary cost
Sills pointed to the inherent risks involved when operating expensive, high-technology equipment and becoming prepared to use it during potentially life-saving missions.
“The ability of these things is amazing, and yes we had an incident, but what we have done and have been able to do with these things outweighs one incident,” Sills said.
When a man was stranded in a pocket of dense woods in the Holly Shelter Game Land last August, dehydrated in conditions that reached a 107-degree heat index, a Matrice 210 was able to successfully locate the man and deliver water and IV supplies to a nearby crew from a 150-foot rope, according to Sills. He said it also identified the best area for a N.C. Forest Service plow to clear a path in the woods for the rescue crew to reach the man.
Last May, a drone was able to locate people clinging to a capsized boat in choppy waters off Topsail Inlet after rescue boat crews were unable get a clear line of sight over high waves, according to Sills.
And during the Fourth of July fireworks show in Surf City last year, a drone identified the best route for an ambulance to avoid high traffic when responding to a cardiac arrest call, according to Sills.
Sullivan said his department is also developing a method that uses a drone to map out a building’s structure so fire crews can pull up a 3-D map, en route to a fire, to know in advance things like the building’s entrances and exits.
“You can’t learn these things in a classroom,” Sullivan said. “As sad as it is [to lose a drone], the cost of training sometimes is that you tear up some stuff. That’s the reality … If you train for real, things are going to go sideways.”
“We’ll ditch a drone all day long if we saved a life,” Sills added, referencing the lessons learned in the incident to prepare for future rescues.
Pender EMS and Fire also issued a release of the incident, indicating that “the in-flight emergency had resulted in a controlled landing into the Atlantic Ocean.”
“No persons or property were injured,” according to the release, although the drone — which according to Sullivan cost the department $26,000 — was not recovered.
Sullivan said bids are now coming in for his department to purchase a new drone or deal with the insurance claim on the lost drone, although it is unclear whether insurance would be a viable option since the drone was not recovered.
Ultimately, Sullivan said the incident was a necessary cost of training as his department adapts to modern technology, especially when dealing with a sparsely populated county that is the state’s fifth-largest.
“Unmanned Aircraft Systems have become a new standard of care, which maybe wasn’t the case 5 to 10 years ago when they were an exception to the rule,” Sullivan said. “We’re responsible for all rescue in Pender County, which is 857 square miles. So we’re responsible for that, and most of the county is rivers, wild land, and wetlands, and you need to have the tools to get to people in a timely manner.”
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