With warmer weather right around the corner, many outdoor enthusiasts are preparing to hit the trails in regional, state, and national parks.

All across the country, search and rescue organizations are preparing, too.  

In 2017 alone, the United States National Park Service deployed almost 3,500 search and rescue missions in national parks. And while search and rescue personnel tend to be highly effective and skillfully trained, they still face a daunting task dominated by a ticking clock – a lost person’s chances for survival drop dramatically after the first 18 hours.

Thanks to a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, a group of Virginia Tech engineers hopes to redefine these search and rescue protocols by teaming up human searchers with unmanned aerial robots, or drones.

In efforts led by Ryan Williams, an assistant professor in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering within the College of Engineering, these drones will use autonomous algorithms and machine learning to complement search and rescue efforts from the air. The drones will also suggest tasks and send updated information to human searchers on the ground.