Texas-based group involved in searches for missing persons around the nation has run afoul of federal aviation authorities who are prohibiting the non-profit organization from employing drones in its work.
A fleet of four unmanned aircraft used by Texas EquuSearch is grounded by the Federal Aviation Administration while the agency develops rules that would allow for the commercial use of unmanned aircraft.
But with that plan still more than a year away, the volunteer group that has participated in such high-profile cases as Natalee Holloway and Caylee Anthony is facing an extended wait before it can resume using an aerial tool credited with nearly a dozen successful finds.
"It's a resource we've had success with and one we can't use," said Tim Miller, who founded Texas EquuSearch after his own daughter went missing in the 1980s. "We're volunteers. And for being a volunteer organization, they're making it impossible for us to help with this."
The FAA advised Texas EquuSearch in February that use of drones must stop immediately because rules do not yet allow for commercial use of such devices. But Miller's search volunteers, who began as a group on horseback in 2000, claim their drones are not used for commercial purposes and therefore should not be subject to the restrictions.
This is the latest in a series of skirmishes between the search organization and the agency that up until now did not include an outright order to ground all its drones.
The FAA has been told by Congress to develop a plan to safely integrate commercial unmanned vehicles by the end of September 2015. Until then, organizations such as Texas EquuSearch could operate drones if they partner with a law enforcement agency or university already authorized to use the aircraft, said FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford.
"The FAA approves emergency certificates of authorization for natural disaster relief, search and rescue operations and other urgent circumstances, sometimes in a matter of hours," he said.
Attorney Brendan Schulman, who is preparing a lawsuit against the FAA on Texas EquuSearch's behalf, said the agency's solution isn't feasible.
In many instances, he said, law enforcement agencies in the rural areas being searched don't have the authorization certificates to use drones. Even if they did, "the FAA has a very, very narrow definition of what it considers an emergency," Schulman said.
In a sense, Texas EquuSearch is a victim of its own success and notoriety.
Miller and his volunteers have been to 38 states and 11 countries, including participation in searches for Holloway, the U.S. teenager who disappeared in 2005 in Aruba; and 2-year-old Caylee Anthony in Florida three years later.
The group's efforts gained media publicity and also caught the attention of the FAA, which "harassed and interfered .... before, during and after search and rescue missions involving model aircraft," Schulman wrote in a March letter to the agency's chief counsel.
In the Caylee Anthony search, the Atlanta FAA office barred use of its drone. In 2011, the agency intervened in the group's search for a missing Indiana University student and "caused a lot of friction and distrust" with law enforcement agencies that prompted the group to stop using its drone, Schulman said.
The organization, financed through private donations, is credited with returning 300 missing people alive to their loved ones. Miller said they've also recovered the remains of nearly 180 people who had been reported missing, with many of those cases contributing to criminal charges.
He credited 11 of those recoveries to drone use beginning in 2005, including the body of a 2-year-old East Texas boy, Devon Davis, in a pond near his home two years ago. An extensive land and water search had failed but a drone flight spotted him after 15 minutes in an area dense with vegetation and with alligators lurking.
"Alligators were going to have dinner," Miller said. "Devon would never have been found."
But he said such successes will be harder to come by until the FAA changes course.
Last week, a search in Louisiana was hampered by their inability to use the drone even for reconnaissance and for mapping. Instead, a two-person task was replaced with 18 people canvassing the ground. Miller is facing a similar circumstance with a search in Oklahoma in the coming days.
"We're looking at over $4,000 (in expenses in the Louisiana search)," he said. "I just don't have that kind of money."