Drone Flies First Search-and-Rescue Mission in California

For the first time ever, the 163rd Reconnaissance Wing flies the MQ‐9 Reaper in the airspace over the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, Calif., July 30, 2014. Searchers are looking for a missing teacher last seen July 17 riding a motorcycle in the El Dorado National Forest. (Photo by Senior Airman Michael Quiboloy)

The MQ-9 Reaper drone made by General Atomics has flown the first-ever domestic search-and-rescue mission in California, officials said.

At the request of the El Dorado County Sheriff's Office and Gov. Jerry Brown's Office of Emergency Services, the California Air National Guard on Wednesday launched the unmanned aerial vehicle to help search for a missing motorcyclist, according to a press release.

"This is the first time such a vehicle has been used by the National Guard to aid a search-and-rescue effort," the release stated.

Known as the "hunter-killer" in the U.S. military for its ability to conduct both surveillance and strike missions, the MQ-9 Reaper is the bigger brother to the MQ-1 Predator. Both vehicles are made by San Diego-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. and were used extensively in the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The drone belonged to the 163rd Attack Wing and departed 10:20 a.m. from the March Air Reserve Base near Riverside. Equipped with infrared sensors, image-intensified cameras and laser illuminators, it soared over the central Sierra Nevada mountain range and provided detailed aerial pictures to ground crews and their civilian partners.

The missing person, Edward Kavanaugh, a 45-year-old teacher from San Francisco, was last seen July 17 in the El Dorado National Forest.

"The sheriff's office said the imagery from the Reaper provided some leads and gave officials some hope of finding the individual," Capt. Will Martin, a spokesman for the National Guard, said in a telephone interview. "But at this point, I don't believe they have found him."

The 163rd Attack Wing's drone fleet includes six MQ-9 Reapers and one MQ-1 Predator, which in 2013 provided aerial imagery to firefighters who were battling what became the third-largest wildfire in the state's history, a blaze known as Rim Fire.

Civilian agencies are now flying the same type of drones that proved their potential in war zones. The Homeland Security Department, for example, has purchased a dozen or so Reapers, which the company calls Predator Bs, to monitor the U.S. Mexico border and maritime areas.

The government of Italy has begun using the technology to help rescue migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Africa in makeshift boats. Several hundred migrants, mostly from Libya, were believed to have drowned April 19 when the overcrowded ship they were riding in capsized about 70 miles off the Libyan coast.

Kaman, which makes the unmanned K-MAX helicopter used by the U.S. Marine Corps in Afghanistan, recently inked deals for commercial versions that could be used in firefighting, forestry work, construction and disaster relief.

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