Amateur drone pilot finds man missing for three days

Apparel-company owner David Lesh found a missing elderly man in a bean field Saturday using a camera-equipped drone.

When Virginia resident Guillermo DeVenecia went missing last Wednesday, police and searchers were dispatched to find the 82-year-old man, who suffers from dementia and hearing loss.

For three days, police, search dogs, a helicopter, and hundreds of volunteers combed heavily wooded areas and fields around DeVenecia's Fitchburg home to no avail. Concerned for his safety as the search dragged on, Fitchburg police issued a news alert to all residents to be on the lookout for the missing man.

It took David Lesh about 20 minutes to find DeVenecia with a drone.

Lesh usually uses his drone to photograph skiers and snowboarders for his Colorado sports-apparel company, Virtika. Hearing about the missing man, Lesh, his girlfriend, and her father took to the skies on Saturday above a 200-acre soybean field to aid in the search.

"I thought what would happen would be we'd be able to give them the peace of mind to cross of some more areas quickly," Lesh's girlfriend, Katie Gorman, told local NBC news affiliate WMTV.

According to Gorman's father, Gary, he didn't think at the time that they'd find DeVenecia alive and safe.

"To be honest, when David was flying the drone over the bean fields, we thought we were looking for a body," he toldreporters.

Using a FPV, or first-person-view controls, Lesh was able to fly above about 200 feet above the area and view it through the drone's camera. He canvased the field, which might have taken volunteers many hours, in just a handful of minutes.

At the end of the flight around 1 p.m., Lesh said he saw DeVenecia through his camera, standing in the bean rows.

"As we were making the last turn to fly it, we noticed a man out in the field sort of stumbling, looking a little disoriented," Lesh told reporters.

Lesh and his group carried DeVenecia out of the field and drove him to the local search command center and his worried wife.

"To get a hug from someone's wife when they've been missing, just a tear-filled hug, is a feeling I won't forget for a long time," Katie Gorman told reporters.

Despite being without food, water, or shelter for three days, DeVenicia was found in good condition, suffering only from some mild dehydration, according to police. Reports indicate that he had no idea he'd been gone that long or that a massive search was underway.

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  • Mathew - Your argument seems a bit incoherent. I never made any comment on the proficiency of the craft or pilot to carry our this type of activity, whether it be in isolation or in comparison to a professionally built and certified aircraft and operator.  With that said, I fail to see how homemade airframes are just as likely to hurt as help, or how not flying a homemade airframe in this instance would have made the operators any more likely to find the missing person or less likely to report a false negative.  This all seems a bit beside the point though.

    The concept of UAV certification is fine, but as I pointed out earlier, it does not apply in this instance.  David Lesh is a hobbyist flying a model aircraft, and had simply responded to a call to action for local residents to be on the lookout for a missing person.  The fact that he used a toy to assist him in his search does not automatically convert him from an amateur flying a model aircraft into a professional operating a UAV.

    It is not as cut and dried as you see it either. For example just because it is possible to use model aircraft for tasks similar (or the same) as a fully certified UAV, that does not mean that the model aircraft must be certified as a UAV.  To use your car analogy, there are many commercial vehicles available that make a great family cars and that are used for that purpose, but this does not mean that they are required to meet the safety standards set out for passenger vehicles.

  • @Quadzimodo

    an untrained dog can find a dead body too, that doesn't mean they as good as a trained dog or should be used in there place. this guy got lucky and I for one am glad but lets not go jumping the gun here the way he's drone was setup could just as easily failed to see him and given a false negative. UAS will help this field greatly but homemade are just as likely to hurt as help.

    as for your second point their called uav certifications, been around for awhile now, its kind of like getting an experiment aircraft certified to fly. show how the UAV is made and tell them how you want to use it and see if it works and they say you can do it.   


    the problem is that point doesn't exist.

    the only professionally made airframes are those made by Boeing and other big names.  professional aircraft and car are built to government set specks that are tested to work. in that light even phantoms are experimental airframes as far as the FAA sees it because there are no such specks.

  • Rob L., well said.
  • what the FAA doesn't like is unregulated homemade airframes flown by "pilots" with how knows what level of training.

    This is an invalid argument.  The FAA has absolutely no problem with homemade unregulated airframes flown by "pilots".  They DO have a problem with the same, or even professionally made airframes, flown by responsible, professional, trained, and insured people.

    This is the point of contention.  It's a completely illogical stance.  That is why everybody is upset with them.

  • Mathew - Nothing wrong with us mate.

    As for dealing with the facts, this bloke is just a hobbyist. As far as the FAA is concerned, he is nothing more than an amateur flying a model aircraft. The only point of contention here is the FPV factor.

    I very much doubt that the FAA have any interest in inspecting the unregulated homemade airframes constructed by model aircraft enthusiasts like David Lesh either.
  • dear gods what is wrong with you people?

    honestly I understand the emotional/ tribalistic cries of "we smart, they stupid" make people feel good but can we get over this idiocy and start dealing with facts? you can't really think the FAA doesn't know UAVs will help in search and rescue because they okayed Washington state using UAVs for forest fires. what the FAA doesn't like is unregulated homemade airframes flown by "pilots" with how knows what level of training.

    this is no different then how experimental car need to be inspected before they're allowed to ever get on road and the drivers still need license.

  • Here's an updated post; it says that Equusearch is back in the air:

    The FAA's Cease-And-Desist Orders to Drone Pilots Are Bogus, Appeals Court Rules


  • T3

    What ever happened to that Texan search and rescue group using copters, are they still held up in court?

  • Quadzimodo 

    Well put!

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