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DOUGLAS COUNTY, Colo. -- We all know our Colorado's population growth has added more cars on the road, but there's also more people using our hiking trails and in our mountains, which has led to more calls for search and rescue operations.
"As this growth is happening, we get more calls, we need more equipment, and we need funding to support that," said Douglas County Search and Rescue's lead drone pilot Morris Hansen.
To more efficiently manage already limited resources, volunteer search and rescue teams across the state are now using drones as their eyes in the sky.
"It gives us an untapped capability that we have never had before," said Hansen. "Searching on the ground can be challenging and takes a lot of resources."
The drones can fly into difficult terrain to scope out the best routes in and cover more ground, faster. Advanced versions like the M600 Douglas County flies can carry blankets, food or water to the injured while they wait for rescuers to make their way in on foot.
"We look at it as another tool to make us more efficient," explained Hansen.
Video from the drone is then streamed back live to Douglas County's outfitted command post vehicle. The aerial footage can also be streamed into the county's emergency operation center during big weather events or natural disasters.
"It allows other searchers at the same time to look at it [the video]," said Hansen.
Add in new thermal technology, which rescuers can deploy at night or in freezing temperatures to identify people when it's difficult for standard cameras to see.
"The thermal imaging is probably the game changer," he said. "Because at night everything becomes more challenging."
The drones are not only a tool to locate lost hikers, they are also used to eliminate areas where missing adventurers aren't located - that way they can send rescuers in on foot to the right places and make rescues happen quicker.
"Ruling out an area so you don't have to go cover it with limited resources is just as valuable as covering an area," he said.
This past June, Douglas County rescuers successfully used a drone to locate two lost hikers and their dog on Devil's Head. Without flying the robot, Hansen said the search likely would have taken rescue volunteers all night.
"The drone was able to confirm that they were there and then also saw that they had a dog," said Hansen.
Douglas County isn't the only team deploying eyes in the sky. Fremont Search and Rescue, Mountain Rescue Aspen, and Summit County Rescue Group are all using drones to increase their chances of getting to lost adventurers before the elements do.
"I don't see this as where we are today being the end game. It's the beginning of this technology," said Hansen.