A week after University of Indiana student Lauren Spierer went missing, Gene Robinson packed up his Spectra Flying Wing drone and got on a plane bound for Bloomington. When he got off the plane, his cell phone rang.
It was the Federal Aviation Administration. The agency had gotten word, from a local news report, that Texas EquuSearch, a world-renowned search-and-rescue agency, would be assisting in the search for Spierer. Robinson partners with Texas EquuSearch to use drones to assist rural search-and-rescue efforts; the FAA, in the midst of a crackdown on what it deems “commercial” drone usage, has been butting heads with Robinson for years now.
Robinson says that the agency’s representative told him that as long as he flew in manual mode, there would be no problem. The next day, when he went out to the search, he heard something completely different.
“The police chief wouldn’t let me open my case. He said if I took it out, he would arrest me,” Robinson told me.
The use of a drone in that particular instance ended up getting congressional attention and devolved into a circus. The area they were searching, a rock quarry, was deemed too dangerous to send in Texas EquuSearch volunteers on foot. The search for Spierer was completely abandoned.
“I had to look at Lauren Spierer’s mother as she wailed when we told her we were leaving the search. We had to watch her husband cry,” Robinson said. “To watch that woman cry as we were walking out the door was not an easy thing to do, but because of what the FAA did, and the sideshow it became, we had to go.”
Three years later, Lauren Spierer is still missing.