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Feds Order EquuSearch to Stop Using Drones in Search of Crime Victims

The group relies mostly on horseback and all terrain vehicles to search rough terrain, but it also employs small, four-pound aerial drones to survey the ground with digital cameras.

Texas EquuSearch volunteers are gearing up for their next search, this time for 31-year-old James Stephens who went missing more than a week ago in rural Louisiana, but if they use any drones to aid them, they could run afoul of the federal government.

The group relies mostly on horseback and all terrain vehicles to search rough terrain, but it also employs small, four-pound aerial drones to survey the ground with digital cameras.

If they launch any of them this week in their search for the man missing in Vernon Parish, however, they will be in direct violation of a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) order not to fly the unmanned aircraft.

"We'll go by some of their rules, but certainly not all of them," said Tim Miller, who founded Texas EquuSearch, "There is a possibility he [Stephens] could be still be alive out there, so yes we're going to use it.''

Miller said TexasEquuSearch has used its drones since 2005 to locate the bodies of 11 deceased persons, including a Houston man floating in Buffalo Bayou and a 2-year-old boy in rural Liberty County.

In all, the group has been involved in more than 1,350 searches in 42 states and eight foreign countries, and provides its services to families free of charge.

"The bottom line is they won't let us fly, and that drone has been so very valuable on so many searches," Miller explained. "When someone disappears, time is of the essence and it saves us a lot of time. And it's very inexpensive."

Brendan Schulman, a New York attorney representing Texas EquuSearch, said the FAA ordered the volunteer group to halt its use of drones in an email on Feb. 21. Schulman has asked the FAA to reverse the ban and allow the Houston-area group to operate legally by April 16. If not, they plan a federal court challenge of the ban.

Schulman said the volunteer group has avoided using drones since the FAA asked them to stop, but said if an emergency situation arises, it will be faced with a "difficult decision."

"We hope the FAA will do the right thing in the next few days so we aren't continuing to wait on a determination of legality," Schulman said.

In Washington, an FAA spokesman would not speculate on what action would be taken if EquuSearch launches the drones.

"We hope they abide by our request to stop unauthorized operations," the FAA spokesman said.

The agency noted it has approved emergency certificates to use drones for relief work in natural disasters and search and rescue operations, but a group such as Texas EquuSearch must be sponsored by a governmental agency that already has FAA permission to fly a drone.

"We are not aware that any government entity with an existing certificate of authority has applied for an emergency naming Texas EquuSearch as its contractor," the FAA said, adding that the process could take as little as a few hours.

Schulman and Miller both said the FAA process of operating under another agency's certificate is difficult, as well as time-consuming.

"I don't care if it's a couple of hours," said Miller. "If we have a missing child or even an adult out there, a couple of hours is a matter of life or death."

The group is being supported by U.S. Rep Ted Poe, R-Conroe, who has sponsored federal legislation that would govern the use of aerial drones by law enforcement and others to make sure privacy rights are not violated.

"The big issue is the FAA should not be in the business of deciding who can get a drone and who can use a drone. They are making the decisions based on heir own opinions," said Poe, during a break in congressional hearings.

The FAA's long delay in developing rules for drone operation has frustrated many users, who note the technology is evolving much faster than the government's progress in setting out rules for their use.

"Texas EquuSearch represents one of the many beneficial uses" of drones in search and rescue operations, said Melanie Hinton, communications director with the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. "This latest development further underscores the need for the FAA to immediately begin its long-delayed rule-making to establish a regulatory framework for [drone] technology."

The drones proved invaluable in the Texas EquuSearch effort to locate the body of Devon Davis, a 2-year-old boy who went missing from his home in rural Liberty County in April 2012.

"We had hundreds of searchers out there for about five days, including the FBI, the Texas Rangers, Houston Police Department, and all the volunteer fire department in Liberty County," recalled Capt. Ken DeFoor of the Liberty County Sheriff's Office. "We were about 30 minutes away from closing down the search on the fifth day when we launched a drone."

DeFoor said 15 minutes later, and on the third pass over a nearby lake, the drone recorded a small red dot in the weed-choked waters. Searchers recovered the body of the small boy, who was wearing a red shirt when he wondered off from his home.

"I cannot understand the controversy going on about the use of drone aircraft for searching for lost children, dementia victims and the victims of foul play, when the FAA has no problem with people flying drones for sport," said DeFoor, who also served with HPD's aviation unit. "To me, it's illogical and it makes no sense."

©2014 the Houston Chronicle