Lost in the Woods? Call in the Drones!

Lost in the woods? Starting this year, it may not be a human who finds you. It may just be a drone.

If you get lost in the woods this winter, you may have a better chance of being found than in previous years. This past fall, thanks to a $105,000 federal grant, the Vermont State Police purchased a fleet of 11 drones, including three armed with heat sensors that are estimated to cost upwards of $20,000.  Six of those will be available to Search and Rescue teams, says Neil Van Dyke, the search and rescue coordinator for the state’s Department of Public Safety.

In the past two years, there have been 32 reports of skiers venturing out from alpine areas and getting lost and 10 from Nordic or backcountry skiers. “Backcountry skiers tend to be better prepared,” says Van Dyke. “They often go out with navigation aids, know where they are going and have food, water and gear that can get them through the night.” While the majority of skiers are found within a couple of hours there have been several incidents of skiers or riders spending the night in the woods. So far, there have been no fatalities.

“The vast majority of recent rescue calls have happened at Killington,” says Van Dyke. “People see tracks going off the west side of Killington Peak, follow them and get sucked into this terrain that funnels out at Mendon where it’s a five-mile slog out. One Monday last season we had three or four groups all lost in the same place at once,” he says.

While Van Dyke is looking forward to using the drones, he’s cautious about how effective they will be. “The drones only have about 25 minutes of flight time, you can’t fly them in rain or snow, and not even the heat sensors will see through heavy vegetation.” Instead of relying on Search and Rescue to find them, Van Dyke hopes skiers and riders will take more precautions before venturing off trail. “The biggest contributing factors to people getting lost is a) they ski alone, b) they don’t tell anyone where they are going and c) often they don’t have maps or any way to navigate once they leave the ski area boundary,” he says. —L.L.

Lisa Lynn

Editor of VT SKI + RIDE and Vermont Sports.