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Drone and thermal camera used to find lost hikers in Bedford County

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The Bedford Fire Department used a drone’s thermal camera to find hikers lost Saturday on Sharp Top Mountain.

A search and rescue team used a thermal camera mounted on a drone to locate two lost hikers Christmas Day in the Peaks of Otter recreation area of Bedford County.

The two men had set off for Sharp Top Mountain shortly before dusk without proper lighting or emergency equipment, according to the Bedford Fire Department.

After losing their way, they called 911 from a cellphone, which allowed dispatchers to collect their GPS coordinates.

Authorities used that data to narrow the search, setting up a command post on the bus trail that leads to the summit of Sharp Top.

The hikers were quickly located by the drone’s camera, which detected the heat from their bodies. Rescue teams then followed the drone to an area near Buzzards Roost and had the hikers down by 8:30 p.m.

There were no injuries.

The Bedford Fire Department uses its $10,000 thermal camera several times a month on average, often at the request of neighboring jurisdictions to help locate lost people, according to Chief Brad Creasy.

Last month, it was used to determine the size of forest fires in the Huddleston area.

The technology is most effective in the colder months, when there is no foliage to limit visibility or block the “heat signatures” of people, Creasy wrote in an email Sunday.


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Laurence Hammack covers environmental issues, including the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and business and enterprise stories. He has been a reporter for The Roanoke Times for more than three decades.

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