The Life of a Search and Rescue Drone Pioneer
How retired Air Force medic Gene Robinson found new purpose looking for missing persons
Back in 2004, when aerial drones were still synonymous with Hellfire missiles and top-secret military missions, former U.S. Air Force medic Gene Robinson was looking for a way to change public perception. No longer able to fly a plane himself, Robinson designed the Spectra, an unmanned flying wing aircraft that can be remotely piloted in extreme weather conditions. More than a decade later, Robinson and his Spectra have been to 30 states and three countries. He's helped break up a human trafficking ring in Tijuana, Mexico, and traveled nearly 7,000 miles away from his home in Wimberley to search for Genghis Khan's tomb.
His home base is the Wimberley Volunteer Fire Department, an unassuming one-story building where Robinson also teaches others how to fly unmanned aircraft. When I met with him, he was working on restoring a donated emergency vehicle into a mobile command unit. In just two months, the 2012 Chevrolet ambulance had been outfitted with two printers, a 4K video monitor, and a piloting console to take his drone operations on the road.
Through his nonprofit, Remote Pilot (RP) Search Services, Robinson has flown nearly 1,000 search and rescue missions, including the high-profile search for Casey Anthony's daughter in 2008. He's quick to admit that he saw his first such mission as merely a marketing opportunity for the Spectra, but once he saw how the technology could help people, he never looked back.
"When we made our first find, the family was just so grateful," Robinson said. "What we were able to do was so important to them and it completely changed my perspective. I knew it was imperative for me to use this technology for good."
The first time Robinson was tapped for a search and rescue mission was in his own backyard. In July 2005, retired special education teacher Margaret White had been reported missing after her car was found by a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper on the side of Ranch Road 12 outside Wimberley. White was a certified herbalist and was known to stop and collect plants from the roadside on her drives, but her keys and purse had been left in her car for days. Though the family and local law enforcement organized a search party of more than 100 people, they hadn't been able to find any trace of her.
With mounting pressure from White's family, the Hays County Sheriff's Office reached out to the volunteer fire department chief, who asked Robinson to test his drone and see if he could do anything to help find White. He flew a couple of missions, taking around 200 photos, and turned the files over to HCSO, who found nothing of note. So, a few days later, when cadaver dogs discovered White – dead from an apparent snake bite – it looked like Robinson's first drone search had been a failure.
Robinson wasn't so sure. He examined the files himself and found that White was visible in 14 of the 200 photos. Because it was the first time HCSO had used a drone for an investigation, the officers had never been trained to look at the photos for the clues that Robinson knew how to find. During what they call the "squinting" process, Robinson and his team comb through files by hand for any details that might point to recently disturbed earth or a walking trail, and for the colors of the clothes the missing person was last seen wearing. Different colors and textures represent potential clues that could lead to a recovery. A speck of blue on the screen points to a color that is rarely found in nature, and in Texas, when people go missing near ranch land, blue is often the color of the jeans they're last seen wearing.
It was too late for White, but her case proved to Robinson and the sheriff's office that his drone could transform search and rescue efforts. Once his next case came around, he had something to prove. By that time, Robinson had been trying to partner with nonprofit search and rescue organization Texas EquuSearch. After months of back-and-forth, that group's founder, Tim Miller, happened to be in a tough spot – a family in West Texas had been searching in vain for their son for nearly six months. Miller accepted Robinson's offer with an air of skepticism (Texas EquuSearch, as the name suggests, was primarily a horse-mounted volunteer search patrol), but three flights and a few hours later, Robinson had recovered the body.
"Gene had been calling me for some time and I just kept thinking to myself, 'What is this guy going to do with his little model airplane?'" Miller said. "But this family kept calling us and I thought it wouldn't hurt. It really opened my eyes. I started to think maybe this guy was more than just a model plane."
"A Hard Time Saying No"
Since 2005, Robinson has continued expanding operations and accepting cases that took him further and further from Wimberley. Those faraway cries for help put him and his nonprofit in a difficult position. From the time he founded RP Search Services, Robinson received a few calls every week from families or authorities asking for his help on a case. He didn't feel comfortable making money off people in need, but the sheer cost of traveling to work these missions – transportation, lodging, food – made it impossible for him to accept each one. Typically, a family requesting his help will try to raise money themselves. Without those funds, Robinson would be dipping into his own savings to pay for the trips – and he sometimes does.
"If I said yes to every request I get, I would be out every week," Robinson said. "In the past, I've ended up paying for these projects out of my own pocket. I could literally be somewhere in the United States looking for someone every day and giving people that closure they're looking for, but I can't afford to. I have a hard time saying no, but there are times that we just can't."
Once the money is raised, Robinson packs his bags and heads out with his gear, ready for the challenge each new mission brings. He's flown in 115-degree heat in California and at 12,000 feet high in the Colorado mountains, but it's wind that truly puts his drone to the test. Robinson likens it to flying in a "river of air," one where the current is constantly changing. So when he arrives on the scene, he has to scope out the environment he'll be flying in. A canyon, for example, means he'll have to navigate a rushing stream of air flowing over the lip of the gorge before venturing deeper.
Then, he takes to the sky. Twenty-five minutes in the air typically allows Robinson to cover about one square mile and leaves him with 200 photos to search through on the monitor. When he's collected the photos, Robinson uses an array of software tools specific to the task. Near-infrared cameras can help detect recently disturbed earth or "cadaver decomposition islands," where a body acts as a super-fertilizer for the surrounding earth. Some software can detect the frequency of certain colors or patterns within the photos. From above Central Texas, cedar trees look like chopped broccoli, and the expanse of the Hill Country is mostly made up of neutral beiges and browns. So when people are reported missing out in the woods, RP Search Services tries to detect unnatural colors. By going through this sorting process, the team can narrow down a more specific location that makes on-the-ground searches more efficient. "In these searches, each minute that ticks by is absolutely crucial, especially when children are involved," Robinson said. "By being thorough and using different methods to sort through the pictures, we can cut down on valuable time that would be spent looking with just boots on the ground."
"A Method to Our Madness"
In 2014, to help supplement his nonprofit and train fellow pilots, Robinson co-founded Drone Pilot Inc. to offer federally licensed drone certification classes. Through these, he has built a team to draw from when he needs help. If a family calls, he can put feelers out and take a few extra people, as the budget allows. With a two-person air crew, one acts as the pilot in command while the other is a visual observer, watching out for flight hazards and changing conditions. The company's three-month, $4,000 courses are designed specifically for first responders, and despite the glimmer in Robinson's eye as he talks about them, they're intentionally grueling.
After two days of intensive in-class instruction, students are given a practice helicopter and homework to complete by next month's classes. Following that, they must complete 20 hours of flight time to prepare for their final pass/fail flight test in the third month. Though it's undoubtedly stressful for his students, Robinson takes great delight in his training program. The more difficult the test, the bigger the smile on his face, and his excitement about his students is contagious. Other instructors aim to train amateurs and offer certifications in two months or less, but Robinson is committed to ensuring his students are prepared for the most difficult scenarios.
"There's a method to our madness," said Robinson. "I have 15 years of drone experience, and every time I go on a mission, that becomes part of the lesson plan. There's always a new challenge, and if we're preparing people who are going to respond to fires or active shooters, we need to prepare them for everything."
Occasionally, Robinson and his team have to watch out not just for changing flight conditions but also for their own safety. Six years ago, Robinson was delivering a presentation to Mexican law enforcement in San Diego about the application of drone technology when the officers were suddenly called out on a case in Tijuana. Eager to help, Robinson and his team tagged along, driving 30 minutes across the border to assist the officers on a human trafficking case.
What was originally meant to be a series of PowerPoint slides and videos of past missions became an in-person demonstration of the Spectra's capabilities. The officers let Robinson know that two teenage girls had been kidnapped and they needed aerial shots of the kidnappers. After three flights, Robinson delivered the authorities photos of the kidnappers, their vehicles, and a uniformed police officer involved with the traffickers. He had given the officers everything they needed to apprehend the traffickers and recover the kidnapped girls. The mission had been a success, but after returning home, Robinson learned one of the officers had been murdered.
"I don't think I'll go back to Mexico for a while," Robinson said. "I know a few members of their team ha[ve] been targeted by criminals since the case. Even when we were there, it was hard for a group of white guys to not stand out, especially when we were the only ones unarmed and we were being guarded by officers with M-16s."
"You Can Rebuild the Story"
Thirteen miles from the Wimberley Volunteer Fire Department, off County Road 213, you'll find Freeman Ranch. In the Texas Hill Country, where back roads are often lined with grazing cattle or iron gates leading to hundred- and thousand-acre ranches, the property doesn't look terribly unique. But it houses one of the rarest research facilities in the country.
Ten years ago, the plot of land was undergoing a transformation. Texas State University had announced their plan to turn the property into the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility, a "body farm" where donated human remains would be studied by university students ("Listening to the Bones," April 4, 2008). The center, one of only five of its kind in the U.S., helps students and law enforcement learn valuable information about how bodies decompose in this region of the country. Each year, people visit the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State (FACTS) from around the world to train cadaver dogs and take courses intended to aid missing persons and murder investigations, making it an obvious partner for Robinson's business. He reached out to the facility's first director and offered his services as a drone pilot to see if they could be of any help.
It was a natural opportunity for collaboration. With the help of a drone pilot, the center could expand its areas of research and undertake projects that benefited from aerial observation. Robinson could test new methods of detection at the farm, gauging their effectiveness without the stress of a high-intensity mission. Since they began working together, Robinson has helped FACTS with multiple research projects and has been trained himself to better identify human remains, such as distinguishing between male and female skulls. The first responders trained at the center learn about rates of decomposition, to better understand what to look for out in the field depending on how long someone has been missing. Additionally, they learn how to interpret burial sites and the positioning of a body once it's been found. Oftentimes, things like the positioning or method of burial can help investigators hypothesize how well the perpetrator knew the victim.
"In the military, the only thing they teach you as a combat medic is how to plug the big holes," Robinson said. "So I'm not too squeamish, but I didn't get the opportunity to learn much about skeletal anatomy and the differences between male and female skulls."
Training like this can be crucial to missing persons investigations. FACTS Director Daniel Wescott said investigators are often surprised by how quickly bodies can decompose when left exposed to the elements. At Freeman Ranch, students and trainees work amidst dozens of bodies, some in cages to protect them from vultures, others left completely exposed so observers can study differences in the rates of decomposition. Wescott says he gets the occasional text from members of a search party asking him to discern if a photo is of animal or human remains. "Once they know more about the technique, it can completely change the interpretation of the crime," he said. "By showing people what to expect when bodies are decomposed and letting them know what it's going to look like, they're much more likely to find what they're looking for."
This year, Robinson worked alongside one of the FACTS students to research how bones and other remains scatter naturally throughout a landscape after decomposing. At the farm, in addition to the bodies in various states of decay, there are scattered bones bleached by the sun. Robinson would regularly fly his drone over the ranch and take photos that allowed researchers to see how far the bones could be scattered due to animal predation, even within a matter of days. In a missing persons case, this can help investigators to better understand patterns and make educated guesses about the radius within which remains may have traveled in a given amount of time.
"When you're able to track movements and identify patterns after the body has decomposed and scattered, it gives you more knowledge and allows you to better reconstruct the scene," Wescott said. "When you get to a scene, you're trying to interpret what happened. Was the person killed there? Were they brought there later? All of that information can help you rebuild the story."
"A Home Team Situation"
Before his Spectra took him on missions across the country, Robinson grew up in the small Houston suburb of Galena Park. He remembers a few bad storms (one of them leaving him without power for a few weeks in the mid-August heat), but none so bad as Hurricane Harvey.
It had been some time since Robinson had returned to his hometown; when FEMA contracted him to head out with a team just two days after Harvey made landfall, parts of the city were nearly unrecognizable. As part of FEMA's incident command, Robinson and his team were deployed to Rockport and Houston to get aerial views of the water to find potential contamination sites, and to fly over water treatment sites to assess damage and see if it was safe for technicians to restore water to neighborhoods.
"The devastation there was total," Robinson said. "You could see the [interstate] 610 under 10 feet of water. That was just four miles from my old house, my old neighborhood. It was unlike anything I'd ever seen growing up. But this was a home team situation. These folks were my people, so to help get their water restored was something I'm glad I could do."
For all the seriousness of his work, Robinson always has a smile on his face when he's talking about how he and his equipment can help people. He's thrilled when he walks me through the technology behind his searches, and he's always a teacher, punctuating his stories with questions, seeing if I can keep up and catch on to how his drones work.
He wasn't much of a troublemaker as a kid, but he chuckles when he says that he's not perfect, so any recoveries he makes or people he helps are just "heaven points" for him. "After I found that first person, I fell out of the tree and hit 100 branches on my way down," Robinson said. "If I can use this technology to make a difference in one or two or three people's lives, I figure that'll probably make up for my misspent youth."