Texas EquuSearch Commences Legal Effort to Continue its Humanitarian Use of Civilian Drones

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HOUSTON, Texas – April 7, 2014 – Texas EquuSearch Mounted Search and Recovery Team (TES) announced today that it has taken steps to begin a legal process to secure its right to use model aircraft (commonly called “civilian drones”) in its humanitarian search and rescue activities.  TES’ action is prompted by a recent order from an official of the Federal Aviation Administration stating that such operations are “illegal” and demanding that Texas EquuSearch “stop immediately.”  For years, FAA officials have interfered with TES’ volunteer search and rescue efforts utilizing drones, including in the Caylee Anthony and Lauren Spierer disappearances.

“Civilian drones are an absolutely irreplaceable resource during our searches,” Texas Equusearch founder Tim Miller comments.   “This technology gives us a better chance at finding missing people alive, without the high cost of using helicopters, which are often not even available, and make the best and safest use of our volunteer searchers’ time during the critical first hours.  The drones help me fulfill the promise I make to families that I will use every resource available to bring home their missing loved ones.”

As with all of TES’ on-the-ground efforts, our use of drones is coordinated with officials involved in search efforts.  We are guided by a set of drone operational safety procedures developed over seven years ago that ensure safety in the air as well as to people on the ground.  To date, photographs taken by TES drones have directly pinpointed the location of remains of 11 deceased missing people.  The technology has also helped direct volunteer resources in countless other searches — to help volunteers avoid hazards on the ground, to facilitate resource allocation to locations of greatest interest, and to save time during the crucial early hours of a search.

Texas EquuSearch has retained the Unmanned Aircraft Systems group at the law firm of Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP in New York to pursue all available remedies in connection with the use of this technology.  Kramer Levin has started this legal process with a letter to the FAA’s Chief Counsel requesting prompt rescission of the FAA’s order in the hopes that TES can avoid litigation in the courts.  The letter sets out the basis for our assertion that the civilian use of a model aircraft for purposes of a volunteer search-and-rescue effort is lawful and violates no existing aviation regulations.  Brendan Schulman, the lead attorney working with TES, comments:  “There is no legal basis for the FAA to prohibit the use of this technology for humanitarian purposes.  It is also incomprehensible, as a matter of policy and common sense, that the FAA would freely allow the recreational operation of model aircraft for decades but prohibit and deem ‘illegal’ the exact same use for the purpose of saving the lives of missing children.”

Gene Robinson, the lead volunteer who operates the drones during TES search and rescue missions, comments:  “Many articles have been written lately about potential privacy and safety fears of model aircraft technology, which have recently been relabeled in popular culture as ‘drones.’  For me, the technology is nothing new, but it is invaluable during these humanitarian missions.  Civilian drones have already done a lot of good for many families, right here in America.”

About Texas EquuSearch:  Since its founding in 2000, Texas EquuSearch has been involved in over 1,400 volunteer searches, in 42 states and eight foreign countries and has found over 300 missing persons alive.  In other less fortunate cases, our searches have recovered remains, helping families to end the agony of not knowing their loved one’s fate, permitting closure, and enabling the human dignity of a funeral.  When the disappearance is the result of a crime, early discovery of the victim’s remains benefits the country’s justice system by preventing deterioration of forensic evidence.  No family is ever charged a fee for these searches or asked for any reimbursement of the organization’s costs (which are covered by donations).

Texas EquuSearch has been using camera-equipped civilian drones in its searches since 2005.  Flown at low altitudes in the same manner as a hobbyist’s model aircraft, the five-pound styrofoam-and-plastic drones used by Texas EquuSearch can photograph a square mile in less than 10 minutes, enabling search planners to quickly focus on areas of interest, such as fresh tire tracks that are not readily visible on foot. 

A copy of TES’ letter to the FAA’s Chief Counsel may be accessed here: http://www.kramerlevin.com/files/upload/TES-Letter.pdf

Exhibits to the letter are available here: http://www.kramerlevin.com/files/upload/TES-Exhibits.pdf

For more information, please contact: Brendan Schulman, Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP, (212) 715-9100.