Earlier this year, the world was shaken by the devastating news of the 7.8 earthquake in Nepal, killing more than 9,000 people and injuring more than 23,000. Moved by the story, Go Professional Cases donated the DJI S900 Tall Landing Gear Case to drone pilot Justin Woodcock, who was recruited for a special search and rescue mission.
This is his story:
In April, Justin was recruited by HaloDrop – a professional drone network that recruits premierly trained drone pilots for crisis response – to produce high resolution 3D aerial mapping of Nepalese structures, particularly hospitals and clinics that provided key medical services.
The 3D aerial map renderings, as Justin puts it, were like “Google Earth on steroids.” They were sent to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, better known as OCHA, where they were able to examine the impact of the tremors and estimate the dollar amount needed to repair or support the affected community.
During this time, many tourists in neighboring countries started photographing the fallen region; images of broken down Hindu temples rapidly started flooding the media. The Nepalese community, whose culture and religion went hand-in-hand, felt disrespected by the unwanted, negative media attention and shut down all drone operations – including Justin’s.
What happened next transformed the course of the trip.
More than $40,000 worth of drones were confiscated by the Nepalese police, and Justin and the HaloDrop team were arrested. After detainment and countless calls to the U.S. Embassy, Team Rubicon, and Nepalese government, Justin and the others were released. A Chinese ambassador’s drones were confiscated; since he had diplomatic immunity the Nepalese police were forced to return his drones, and in turn, they returned Justin’s drones, too. However, Justin’s troubles didn’t end there. He was at risk of having his Visa revoked.
Justin and the HaloDrop team communicated with another police station through a middleman to avoid re-arrest. The station offered to help the American crew in return for drone education and assistance locating earthquake victims with thermal mapping. His team said yes: they showed Nepalese police how to operate drones – specifically the DJI Phantom with GoPros® strapped on and DJI Inspire 1 for 3D mapping, and the S900 with Panasonic GH4k and thermal cameras for thermal mapping. Then, for three days, they drove caravans into the most remote areas of Nepal, also known as “dead zones,” to find villagers. They saw broken families, communities and homes, landslides falling behind their vehicle, and smelled the overpowering odor of putrefied bodies running down the Nepalese river, a religious ritual.
Justin feared the drones wouldn’t find people since thermal drones detect heat and many bodies were already decomposed. However, due to gases emitted after day four or five of body decomposition, Justin was able to find affected areas. Often times, he’d get home by 8 p.m., stay up all night for aerial renderings and provide coordinates to on-the-ground search parties to go out the next day.
It remains unknown how many lives were saved by the drone mission, but one thing rings true: drones saved lives. Justin even gifted an S900 and DJI Phantom to the Nepalese police before departing.
Today, he receives an influx of phone calls from search and rescue teams, as well as groups looking for thermal search and rescue drones. For now, though, he’s focused on leading the Reno Fire Department’s search and rescue team. And when he’s not saving lives with drones, he stays busy managing his aerial cinematography companies RaptorCam and The Drone Store, or doing heli tech work for Copter Kids.
Justin’s advice for drone pilots interested in participating in search and rescue missions: do it right. Partner with a legitimate organizations such as HaloDrop or Team Rubicon. Don’t just show up with a drone; it’ll cause more problems than solutions.