Drones for dogs? How technology is finding missing pets

High-tech drones with thermal imaging help find dogs buried under lot of thickets in heavily wooded area

As pet owners, the thought of losing a furry friend is heart-wrenching.

But what if technology could help locate lost pets faster than ever before? That’s exactly what’s happening thanks to the use of drones with heat-seeking technology.

In Central Ohio, AFRS -- Ohio’s first robotic fire department -- was called to help find two missing dogs in the middle of a winter storm with subzero temperatures. They broke away from their owner during a hike.

Chief Todd May and his team dispatched one of their high-tech drones with thermal imaging to locate the dogs who were buried under a lot of thickets in a heavily wooded area.

“If it wasn’t for the drone finding their thermal signature, the ground team of 12 individuals probably would have never found those pets,” May said.

AFRS, a nonprofit, uses drones for missing person searches, fires, and natural disasters. They’ve been involved in about 12 pet rescues so far.

The dogs’ owner, Stephanie Dawes, expressed her gratitude, saying, “I owe him everything, because these dogs are my life.”

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In Ottawa, Canada, a rescue dog named Burti ran away after coming in from Taiwan. Despite sightings, the dog bolted anytime someone approached. After six days of searching, drone hobbyist Dawson Ross spotted prints in the snow and eventually found the dog. Using a trap, they were able to catch Burti and bring her to safety.

Similarly, in Wisconsin, Matt Howell used his unmanned aircraft to find a dog. Using thermal imaging, Howell located the dog curled up in a ball, and then sent the coordinates to the owner. It was another happy ending.

While drones have proven to be useful in locating lost pets, Don Wiley from Gold Wingnut Productions in Florida emphasizes that they are just a tool and not a complete solution.

“It really does take a team effort,” he said, noting he’d been a part of pet searches and volunteered his drone services.

Drones have their limitations, such as not being able to see under cars or trees, where lost pets may hide. They also have limited battery life, cannot fly in restricted airspaces, like near airports or military bases, and thermal imaging doesn’t work as well on hot days or when there’s extensive wildlife in the area.

Cats are also better at hiding than dogs, so that makes them harder to find.

In short, while drones have proven to be an excellent aid in finding lost pets, they are not a one-stop solution. Drone experts believe technology will continue to improve, making searches for pets easier and ultimately more successful.

In the meantime, it still takes a combination of ground teams, volunteers and drone pilots to bring our furry friends back home safe.

This article is part of “Solutionaries,” our continuing commitment to solutions journalism, highlighting the creative people in communities working to make the world a better place, one solution at a time. Find out what you can do to help at SolutionariesNetwork.com.

About the Authors:

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.