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Community Volunteer Uses His Drone to Find Missing 6-Year-Old Boy in Sherburne County, Minnesota

BY Isabella Lee
22 October 2019

On October 15, Minnesota police began a search and rescue mission for a 6-year-old boy named Ethan who went missing after he got off the school bus and ran off to play with the family dog.

drone search and rescue

This still image captured by a drone equipped with a thermal camera shows the line of searchers as they were looking for Ethan and his dog. Image Source: Fines Aerial Imaging

More than 600 volunteers, numerous law enforcement agencies, and a private drone operator are to credit for finding Ethan and his dog after they were missing for hours late last Tuesday night into Wednesday morning.

Drone Spots Missing 6-Year-Old Boy Lying in a Cord Field

A drone operated by Steve Fines, of Fines Aerial Imaging, used heat-seeking technology to find Ethan and his dog at about 1:50 a.m. in a cornfield a little more than a mile east of his home.

Note: Unauthorized drone operators who interfere with emergency response operations can be fined up to $20,000. The FAA approves emergency response drone flights through its Special Governmental Interest (SGI) process, which is open to applicants with an existing Part 107 Remote Pilot certificate or Certificate of Authorization.

Ethan and his dog were lying down in the field when the drone spotted him. Ethan was cold (temperatures were in the 30s that evening) but was otherwise in good health after being found.

Fines used a DJI Matrice 210RTK V2 with a Zenmuse XT2 thermal camera during the search. Sending up a drone with a thermal camera is a more efficient, cost-effective, and quicker way to scan an area for signs of life than using a large, expensive helicopter. When searching at night, an infrared-equipped drone enables you to see things that you can’t with the naked eye.

With his drone, Fines was able to search over areas of wet ground and dense vegetation that were hard to reach on foot. However, Fines says he wouldn’t have been able to find Ethan without the help of those searching on the ground.

While I was running the camera that found him and some of the news stories have focused on that, I only knew in which direction to look because volunteers on the ground had found a footprint that pointed me in the right direction. I knew which areas had already been searched because of the excellent coordination of the Sherburne County Sheriff.

—Steve Fines, Fines Aerial Imaging

This video posted to the Sherburne County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page shows the moment Ethan and his dog were led out of the cornfield.

Sheriff Joel Brott credits the massive community effort that brought hundreds of volunteers to the area to help search for Ethan.

“This truly was the epitome of a community caring for its own,” Brott said. “To see the outpouring of support in such a short time period to come out and help find this boy and his dog is heartwarming.”

Area law enforcement agencies provided multiple canines to assist in the search as well as drones and a helicopter from the State Patrol.

Drones Adoption is Growing Among Public Safety Organizations

Other public safety organizations that have incorporated drones in their operations include the New York Police Department (NYPD), Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD), Chula Vista Police Department, and many others.

Drones have proven their value in a number of emergency scenarios, from search and rescue to natural disaster response missions. We talk about the many different ways drones are saving lives in these posts:

Sherburne County Sheriff’s Office issued a public thanks to the following agencies for their assistance in the search for Ethan and his dog: police and fire departments from Becker, Big Lake, and Elk River, the Clear Lake Fire Department, St. Cloud Police, Minnesota State Patrol, FBI, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Stearns County, Gold Cross Ambulance, Red Cross, and Clear Lake Lions.

Here is a video of Ethan thanking all those who helped find him.

Share your thoughts on this inspiring search and rescue story in this thread on our community forum.

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