Well done to Gene Robinson one of the first DIYD members. He has been pushing for this for years and it looks like the sun is rising on SAR RPAS in the USA.
Missing woman’s family hopeful as drones take to the sky
After days of searching by foot, ATV and horseback have yielded no new information in the Aug. 30 disappearance of 23-year-old Christina Morris, the operation took to the sky Thursday after Texas EquuSearch got permission from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to use unmanned airplanes to aid in its search effort.
Based in Austin, five waterproof drones are now on hand to take hundreds of aerial photos of the search area. Only one drone is launched at a time on 15-minute flights. When the aircraft – which takes about 150 photos every 10 minutes – lands, the images are removed, and the team moves on to the next area if necessary.
“The cruise speed on this aircraft is about 37 mph,” said Gene Robinson, director of unmanned aircraft operations. “It’s a relatively slow aircraft, it’s not the sexiest aircraft in the world, but it’s a very capable flyer. This is a groundbreaking use of this [specific] aircraft, and NIST was very gracious to allow us to use this aircraft on this search.”
The previous aircraft, the Spectra Flying Wing, is credited with recovering the remains of 11 people since its inception in 2005. The Spectra is an electric model, and the drones being used in the Morris investigation run on gas.
“It has an autopilot on board, and I’m the pilot in the loop,” said Robinson, who builds the drones for Texas EquuSearch. “There’s always a human in the loop, so if something goes south, I can flip a switch and it’s my bird. I’ve been flying these for about 35 years, and I’m a regular pilot as well.”
And while it’s typically Texas EquuSearch policy to prevent immediate family members from being present at search efforts, Ronnie McElroy, Morris’ stepfather, was there for the drone launch.
An aircraft mechanic at American Airlines, McElroy was curious about the drones being used to find his stepdaughter.
“Tim [Miller, founder and director of the mounted search and recovery nonprofit] is very into the search,” McElroy said. “The whole time [we’re driving around] he says, ‘We’ve got to find Christina.’ He’s a good guy, and I’m very glad we met him. He’s on a mission. He treats her like his own daughter.”
McElroy reached out to Texas EquuSearch after learning of his stepdaughter’s disappearance four days after she was last seen in a parking garage at The Shops at Legacy.
“Somebody knows something, and I’m just begging, to be honest with you,” said Jonni McElroy, Morris’ mother. “I’m a desperate mom right now. … I need people to start talking. I know in my heart that somebody knows.
“I’m making a plea. Please give her back to us. We’re not going to ask questions. We don’t care. You can go on your merry way like it never happened, but we need her back. You’ve had enough time with her. I know you want her with you more – who wouldn’t? She’s amazing, she’s beautiful and she’s the love of our life. There’s a reason why you took her … but hey, your time’s up.”
Emotionally drained and physically exhausted, Jonni will stop at nothing to find her daughter. She considered staying back to rest on Thursday, but seeing the drones and the support of the community gave her a renewed sense of hope.
“We’re blessed that the FAA is supporting us now too,” she said. “We obviously had to touch them some way or they wouldn’t have said yes. I understand Tim fought that fight, and he fought it hard with his team because he knows how important it is to find my daughter. We’re very blessed – I can’t stress that enough.”
By foot, horseback and ATV, volunteers will stop at nothing to get answers and find a woman many don’t even know personally.
“Our barn manager actually texted a bunch of us and asked if we wanted to come out [and help],” said Lisa Goldberg, an equestrian from Hidden Vale Stables in Plano. “I immediately broke my plans for the day and said ‘I’m there.’ I felt touched. I’ve been riding for 50 years … and I’m hopeful.”
Ronnie said he tears up everyday when he sees cars pull up to Legacy Church, the Texas EquuSearch command center, with food, water and supplies. The support from the community has played a big part in keeping him and his wife hopeful and focused on their No. 1 goal – finding Christina.
“It’s a true blessing,” Jonni said. “That’s God speaking. That’s the community coming together. We’ve got a lot of stuff going on in the world right now and this let’s you know there’s still hope and faith out there for sure. I thank my parents for always giving me a strong belief in God and faith and for carrying it through to my daughter.
“Somebody’s going to break. I know they are, because everybody’s born with a heart and soul. Everybody.”
For information on search efforts, visit texasequusearch.org.