When search-and-rescue teams with the Alaska Department of Public Safety went looking for two snowmachiners who got stuck in Hatcher Pass on Feb. 10, it was a different kind of search from what they were used to.
Normally, aerial search teams must rely on binoculars and the naked eye to spot a missing person in the vast landscape, said tactical flight officer Zac Johnson. However, because people can often blend in with the landscape or be difficult to spot in heavy tree cover, it’s not an efficient way of searching, he said.
“Sometimes you can fly over someone a couple of times before you’re able to pick them out," Johnson said.
A search and rescue operation like that can take days, but because of new technology, it took just 15 minutes to spot the missing snowmachiners, officials said.
The Alaska State Troopers helicopter the rescuers were using had been outfitted with a new $600,000 camera-and-mapping system, including an infrared camera that allowed them to pick up the snowmachiners’ heat signatures. The two men showed up as bright white dots, easily seen against the dark landscape.
Both of the agency’s A-STAR helicopters were upgraded to the new technology in mid-January.
“It’s a game changer for the Alaska Department of Public Safety,” said Lt. Eric Olsen of the Alaska Wildlife Troopers.
The high-zoom cameras allow the helicopters to fly at higher altitudes, meaning they can quickly cover much more territory, Johnson said. In the past, pilots have had to fly at low altitudes to survey the ground, which drastically narrows their field of view and makes the search much longer.
Now, rescuers can search a 10- or 20-square-mile area in less than two hours, Johnson said.
The cameras are also combined with an “augmented reality” mapping system that overlays navigation information on the camera images.
"With this, sometimes we can find them within minutes of coming into the area,” Johnson said.
In an operation where “every minute counts,” Olsen said, the new system makes a big difference.
It does, however, require a two-person team to use: a pilot who flies the helicopter and a tactical flight officer who monitors the cameras and navigation system. Right now, Johnson is the only such officer in the agency, though a second is scheduled to come on board next week, he said.
Rescuers have already found four people using the technology, Olsen said — the two missing snowmachiners and two overdue skiers, all of whom were unharmed.