A personal tragedy at a Tahoe ski resort this past winter is spurring one family to advocate for advanced technology in search and rescue. Reno Public Radio’s Anh Gray explores how drones could offer a solution.
On a bluebird day in mid-January, brothers Carson and Wyndham May, both ski instructors at Sugar Bowl Ski Resort, had a day off to enjoy one of their favorite activities. This is what Wyndham, the younger brother, remembers:
“We were free skiing together with a good buddy of ours and we were having a great day,” Wyndham says. “The beginning was actually very clear and around noon or one o’clock a pretty nasty stormed rolled in.”
The brothers decided to separate so Carson could ski back to gather items from the resort, taking a nearby route that was out-of-bounds.
“It’s something that a lot of people do; they don’t think about the terrain just off the other side of the ridge when you’re going off that way,” Wyndham recalls. “So what normally would be a pretty relaxed route back into the locker—you know it’s nothing beyond a blue level run—the storm became so disorienting, it allowed him to get off track.”
By next morning Wyndham began to worry.
“I got to work pretty early and I saw his stuff at his locker room and I notified people immediately. And that’s when it started…”
KCRV Channel 3 News reported on the search and rescue mission: “Happening now, a search for a missing skier in the Sierra. Sugar Bowl ski instructor Carson May has been missing for at least 24 hours now. Rescue crews are up against time and another storm, and with more snow coming in, the window for good weather is closing quickly.”
Carson’s father Mike May says he felt desperate. As a tech entrepreneur, he immediately started researching any device that could find his son.
“There’s gotta be something,” May says. “I’ve spent my life innovating technology and finding work-arounds as a person who has been blind since age three.”
Mike’s exhaustive search included looking into drones, cell phone location tools, ground penetrating radar and super-sensitive devices for detecting human remains, but time was not on his side.
KCRV Channel 3 News provided an updated report of the search: “Not the news that anyone wanted to hear today here at Sugar Bowl. The Placer County Sheriff’s Office says it no longer considers this as a rescue operation but as a recovery operation.”
It would be nearly six weeks before Carson’s body was recovered at the end of February.
Mike says it seems Carson was caught in an avalanche. He acknowledges that most likely technology would not have saved his son, but it could have reduced the risks to searchers.
“It’s dangerous for them to be out in avalanche country and we want to keep somebody else from getting hurt by having technology to help leverage what they’re doing,” May says.
Leveraging technology is what gets Richard Kelley out of bed each day. He’s the chief engineer at Nevada Advanced Autonomous Systems Innovation Center, or NAASIC. Kelley says UAV developers have been looking to adapt drones for search and rescue. He demonstrates the speed and agility of one particular model.
“The drone I’ll be flying today is a fairly small quadcopter, so basically it has four arms, and at the end of each arm you have a small propeller,” Kelley says. “It’s something you can hold very easily; it’ll fit on a coffee table.”
A camera could be easily mounted to this drone making it ideal for surveying remote locations.
“You could set it down, take it off and very quickly gain situational awareness of what’s going on,” Kelley explains. “It would not surprise me if we see something like this flying for search and rescue in the very near future.”
This model runs about $700, reasonable for small rescue operations. Kelley notes that one limitation is short battery life, which could be improved. This quad-copter has about 20 minutes of flying time per charge.
Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue President Chris McConnell, who was involved in Carson’s search. He's also a fixed-winged aircraft pilot. He says he’s paying close attention to what drones have to offer.
“It’s the early days for drones,” McConnell says.” The deployment in search and rescue, you’re seeing agencies around the country start to dabble in it. I think it has limited success but the applications show promise in ideal environments.”
McConnell says that in the Tahoe area, weather and location can factor into drone use.
“During blizzards, these are really difficult conditions. You’re talking about very heavy snowfalls with inches if not feet per hour,” McConnell explains. “So to be able to fly in those types of environments is really low.”
McConnell says his team was distraught about not finding Carson alive. As for Mike May, he will keep sharing his son’s story and he won't stop looking for better solutions.
“Ultimately, it was a traditional search mission using ground crews with search dogs that found him,” May says, “but I did find other things that could potentially, in the future, be helpful in finding a body under snow.”
Mike remembers his son as a creative and passionate young man. Carson May would have turned 24 years old this year.