• Unmanned Unplugged: Chief Gene Saunders, Project Lifesaver International

    Project Lifesaver International is a nonprofit organization that is pioneering the use of unmanned aircraft to locate people with cognitive disorders in search-and-rescue operations. The program currently uses a Lockheed Martin Indago to locate individuals with Alzheimer’s and other similar conditions.


    Can you describe your background and what inspired Project Lifesaver International?

    I was a member of the Chesapeake Virginia Police for 33 years, retiring as a captain in 2001. My assignments included every aspect of law enforcement and command of every function, except traffic. A collateral duty assignment was commander of special operations (SWAT) for 23 years — over 800 operations. I was also a founding member of the unit. One responsibility of the SWAT unit was search and rescue (SAR).

    During this tenure I became aware that many of the searches we were doing were for missing Alzheimer’s patients, which proved to be difficult and many were unsuccessful. When the SAR responsibility was shifted to the Sheriff’s Office, I assumed command of the unit as a volunteer, aside from the police department. During that time, the aforementioned searches were still problematic. I happened on a brochure concerning radio tracking of wildlife and felt that would be beneficial if we could do that for persons that, due to cognitive disorders, may become lost. I pursued that idea, acquired a grant for a pilot program, which was successful, and led to the launch of the program across the country.


    What were the results of your early trials? Did you run into any initial problems when starting up the project?

    The early trials and searches were extremely successful, which led to the program we have today. The initial problem was securing funding to start the program but, after several attempts, I was able to secure a grant from a local hospital to initiate a pilot program.


    How do you ensure the steps of training through Project Lifesaver International will be successful?

    In order to ensure success of the training, any agency wishing to acquire the PLI Indago will have to be a trained, certified PLI agency that has already completed the required training in the areas of search and rescue, understanding of the cognitive conditions and how to properly apply the technology. An agency that is not a member of PLI will have to complete the required training and become a certified member prior to any Indago training or acquisition.


    How did you come up with the idea to use this technology to help those with life threatening wandering behaviors?

    The idea occurred to me that if we could use the technology to track and locate animals, why couldn’t we use the same technology, in a different form, to locate person’s we identify as potential risks for wandering? This would cut down search time, cost, and manpower for the searches and ultimately enable us to bring people home safely in more instances.


    What benefits do the Indago quadrotor have over standard search-and-rescue techniques?  Are there any disadvantages to this technology?

    The Indago will give agencies that don’t have air capabilities the ability to have and utilize it to expand their search areas rapidly. It will also cut down on the cost associated with other airborne searches utilizing helicopters or other aircraft. … This could apply in any type search where a person carries or wears a locating unit, i.e., hiking, climbing, etc.


    What does the future hold for you and Project Lifesaver International? What would you like to do next?

    I believe the future is limitless. The capabilities the Indago brings to PLI will enable the program to spread even further into other countries that need this type program and have large areas to cover. We will always be looking for, and testing, any technology that will save lives [and] reduce cost, manpower and time in locating a person to bring them home safely. I would like to see this program expanded to further protect anyone that is in a position where rapid locating may be a factor in getting them recovered safely.

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