Local sheriff's deputies save hikers using drone

'This is the future.'

MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Va. – The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office is taking its rescue operations to new heights.

On Monday, around 3:45 a.m., the department got a call from the 911 dispatch center about two hikers who were lost in the woods near the Bottom Creek Gorge Preserve and Trail.

“They had received a phone call from them and lost contact and was not able to reestablish contact with the hikers," said Deputy Sheriff Jason West.

The team grabbed its drones and drove about an hour to the trail to search for the missing hikers.

The drone uses thermal technology when it’s dark outside to detect a person’s body heat. However, they didn’t have any luck on the first flight.

“You only have a certain amount of battery power when we use the thermals, so it drains the battery," West said. "We get about a 10- to 15-minute flight.”

After changing the battery, they flew the drone a second time and spotted the hikers about 1.5 miles away. Within an hour from arriving at the scene, rescuers had safely rescued the hikers within an hour.

Deputies said a search like that would typically have taken hours, but this one only took about 20 minutes to find the hikers' location.

"Usually, it takes a whole lot of resources, between fire, rescue, search teams," said Deputy Sheriff Ryan Zikes.

The department bought two drones last year and has used them nine times for rescue missions and fugitive searches. The equipment and training cost $36,000 total, which was entirely paid for using drug forfeiture money and did not cost taxpayers anything.

West and Zikes said drones save time, resources, money and lives.

"It’s definitely good for the community," Zikes said. 

"This is the future," West said.

Deputies added that they would like to buy another drone with a high-resolution camera to film during the day.

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