Texas EquuSearch defies government order to stop using drones In searches

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - The founder of Texas EquuSearch, Tim Miller, plans to fight the Federal Aviation Administration's attempts to prohibit the use of drones in searches for missing people. Miller said he has hired an attorney and plans to sue if the FAA if it does not back down from a recent order prohibiting the volunteer organization from using the unmanned aircraft in search operations.

"You know, we're not flying in somebody's backyard, looking at their girlfriend laying in their bikini," said Miller.

Miller said he began battling the FAA on this issue two years ago during a search for a missing girl in Indiana. Miller said during that search officials with the FAA told local law enforcement to stop EquuSearch from using a drone.

"The lead investigator said if we even take it out of its case he will arrest us," said Miller.

Miller said since that confrontation he has continued to use drones and will continue to do so when necessary. Miller said in 2012, a drone was instrumental in finding the body of 2-year-old Devon Davis in a Liberty County pond, when days of ground searches turned up no sign of the boy.

"I mean, we've recovered 11 deceased bodies with that drone airplane," said Miller.

Miller said drones have allowed EquuSearch to scan large patches of difficult terrain quickly and more efficiently.

"The drone does a lot of recon work for us, so we get our searchers out where they need to be," said Miller. "We know when we get there, time is of the essence."

Miller provided Local 2 Investigates with a copy of a February email response from an FAA inspector to an EquuSearch volunteer who owns and operates a drone. The email was a response to the volunteer's questions about the FAA's position on the low altitude use of drones in search and rescue missions.

"The new rules promised years ago have not materialized," the email read. "I often get requests from Tim Miller on very short notice and it is difficult to wait on individual permissions without jeopardizing the mission."

In response, the inspector wrote that commercial use of drones must be authorized beforehand and without that authorization, the use of drones is illegal. The email stated EquuSearch missions not authorized by the government must "stop immediately."

"I understand the pressure to get (drones) integrated into the (national airspace) is mounting, but it must not be at the sacrifice of what is right or safe," the inspector wrote.

The inspector added he would work with EquuSearch to try to get search and rescue operations that meet emergency criteria authorized as quickly as possible and suggested the group try to find an entity certified to fly drone missions to sponsor searches using the aircraft.

Currently, the FAA is prohibiting the commercial use of drones until specific rules can be put in place. Those rules are not expected until 2015.

Miller said you cannot predict when or where a person will disappear and he does not believe the government has the authority to ban the use of drones at low, "below radar," altitudes for search and rescue operations.

"We let these families and law enforcement know we're going to bring in every resource possible and they're blocking us from bringing in a resource that's very, very valuable," said Miller.

Miller said he has hired an attorney who specializes in this type of law to represent Texas EquuSearch against the FAA.

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