Heat-sensing drone finds missing Shelby County woman

(WISH Photo)

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — A 47-year-old woman in Shelby County has a dozen rescuers to thank for finding her, along with one heat-sensing drone.

Around 2:30 a.m. Thursday, a woman left her home in Shelby County and wandered into a field, according to Bargersville firefighter Eric Funkhouser. Funkhouser said the woman’s family members told emergency responders she had schizophrenia, and Shelby County sheriff’s deputies, along with firefighters from Shelbyville, Flat Rock and Marietta began a search.

A K-9 officer was also called in and alerted to the woman’s scent but after two hours could not locate her. That’s when they called the Bargersville Community Fire Department.

“Took me about 20 minutes to get out there, took the drone with the FLIR camera out to that location, showed up at the house,” explained Funkhouser, referring to a brand of infrared thermal cameras mounted on a drone. “The K-9 unit and the officers on scene were able to give me a general direction in which she had traveled, and probably within five minutes, we were able to pick up her heat signature,” continued Funkhouser.

After that, Funkhouser said it took just five more minutes to get her exact location, with the drone hovering 100 feet over the woman as a beacon for the other rescuers. He says she was in a field about a quarter mile from the house and had gotten across to the other side of a fence. Drone footage reveals within 15 minutes of deployment, the woman was in the arms of emergency responders and was on her way to the hospital in an ambulance to get checked out.

“It’s just a fantastic feeling,” said Funkhouser. “It’s great to be able to have this technology at our disposal at the fire department and to use that technology to make a difference.”

Funkhouser said just in the past few days he’s gotten several phone calls from law enforcement agencies around the state asking about his drone program and how it was funded. Funkhouser says his department pursued a grant through the Johnson County Community Foundation, and the department is often called on by other counties to help in search and rescue efforts.

“I completely think they’re the future of emergency services,” said Funkhouser.

Also on Thursday a UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) training class taught by Ron Shelnutt, an Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department patrol officer, was underway for three Ripley County sheriff’s deputies.

“They’re pursuing, smartly, the use of UAS,” said Officer Shelnutt. “They’re a smaller sheriff’s department, and UAS is a force multiplier. They’re looking into it and they’re excited about the technology also.”

The group gathered at the Lawrence Fire Department training station outside of Fort Benjamin Harrison State Park. The sheriff’s deputies first learned the basics of drone flying and usage in a classroom, then practiced flying on computer simulations, finally taking Shelnutt’s own aircraft out to the park to practice.

“[We can] put them forward of SWAT teams, they can be forward operating for K-9’s,” said Shelnutt. “If we have some possible violent protesters, that might be coming into down, that’s another area we might explore with situational awareness.”

Ripley County and IMPD don’t have their own drones yet but say they want to be prepared. According to Shelnutt, only Bargersville, Indianapolis and Wayne Township Fire departments have drones. It’s Shelnutt’s dream to see them in departments across the state.

“I think it’s going to be standard equipment,” he said. “Just like when tasers were rolled in and people were like, ‘What is this, Star Trek?’ Everybody understands the methods of tasers these days. I think as [drones] continue to prove their worth with what they’re doing now, they’ll be even more accepted by the public and by our command staff within police departments and sheriff’s departments.”

Funkhouser agrees.

“It saves people and departments so much time having this technology because they’re not having to go out and walk these fields,” said Funkhouser. “I’m able to go up and no matter how dark it is outside, the camera itself can pick up her heat signature and we did it almost instantly.”