Drone pilot and photographer Douglas Thron travels the world following natural disasters using drones to rescue animals.
By Jim Magill
Natural disasters – hurricanes, wildfires and tornadoes – leave a trail of devastation and claim countless victims, human of course, but also animal victims.
Rescuing animals lost or stranded in disasters has become the life’s work of drone pilot and aerial photographer/cameraman Douglas Thron. Using a Matrice 210 V2 drone equipped with a FLIR XT2 camera that integrates a high-resolution thermal sensor and a 4K visual camera, as well as a spotlight, Thron has found animals in distress in far-flung areas from Kentucky and Colorado to the United States and saved Bahamas and Australia.
Throne’s rescues are documented in the television show Doug to the Rescue, produced by Curiosity Stream and available on HBO Max.
“I’ve always had a love for animals,” Thron said in an interview. “As a kid growing up in Richardson, Texas, just outside of Dallas, I raised orphaned possum babies, squirrels, raccoons, and beavers.”
While working as an aerial cameraman, filming footage of manned aircraft such as Cessna airplanes and helicopters, he became an early adopter of drone technology.
“I saw someone had footage of Phantom Ones in the early days of drones and I was just blown away by the footage,” he said. “I sold my experimental seaplane and bought one of those early Phantom drones and started doing aerial photography.”
Working on shows like Nat Geo and Discovery, he encountered an animal rescuer who used infrared scopes at night to locate and rescue animals affected by natural disasters.
“I said, ‘Damn, I wonder if I could put something like that on a drone.’ About eight months later I was in the Bahamas after a hurricane trying to find dogs with drones,” Thron recalled.
Using his Matrice drone equipped with an infrared camera, Throne searched for dogs among the 30-foot-tall piles of debris at night caused by Hurricane Durian, a Category 5 storm that swept through the island nation in September 2019 with winds up to 180 , searched for dogs km/h.
“It was challenging at first because I was the first to do it,” he said. “It was super challenging and frustrating because it would take hours and hours to get the stuff working and it wouldn’t fucking work. Now everything works like a champ, all bugs are ironed out.”
An early difficulty he encountered centered on the sensitivity of infrared camera equipment. The ground surface in the Bahamas also retained a lot of heat at night, making it difficult to distinguish the dogs’ heat signatures from those of the surrounding area. This situation improved when the XT2 camera came out, which allowed him to switch from infrared to visual camera modes.
“But you would still get false hot readings, from an ashtray lid or a nub in the side of a tree,” he said. Thron mounted a spotlight that moved in sync with the infrared camera so he could switch the camera to visual mode and see what the heat signature registered, whether it was an animal in distress or just a rock on the ground.
Animal rescue drones: rescuing baby koalas
In 2020, Throne traveled to Australia, which has been devastated by a series of massive wildfires, to help rescue koalas and other stranded animals. “The koalas were special,” he said. “I had never seen a wild koala before.”
The great fires burned an area the size of the state of Oklahoma and destroyed thousands of acres of habitat. Thron and his team were able to save dozens of koalas by climbing burnt-out trees and setting live traps at the base of the trees to catch the distressed animals.
Since then, Throne has responded to numerous natural disasters across the US, including wildfires in Colorado and the recent series of tornadoes that devastated much of Kentucky. Some of these rescues have proven dramatic and difficult.
Thron flew his drone over a hurricane-devastated part of Louisiana in the weeks following a storm and found a number of dogs chained and left dead.
“If you get to them, they’ll starve. Sometimes they are lifeless. Other times they are really defensive and just try to bark. At that point, they’re probably hallucinating because they haven’t eaten in several weeks,” he said.
“If I hadn’t flown the drone out there, these animals would have suffered constantly, chained to cars or chained to a small kennel.”
In another instance, Thron rescued a number of cats that had been badly burned in a fire. “I have the headlight that shines down and I have to run after the animal, sometimes while still flying the drone and hoping the drone’s battery will last,” he said. “I don’t fly a drone with gloves on, so I have to catch it with my bare hands and grab as much of it as possible. They were scratching and biting like hell.”
Another rescue involved rescuing a pregnant dog trapped under a pile of rubble. “I was able to free her and the next day she gave birth to nine puppies.”
Training future animal rescuers
Thron has a few words of warning for others who wish to follow in his footsteps and use drones to rescue animals. He recommended that aspiring rescuers should first become competent drone pilots, experienced in the use of their aircraft and associated equipment.
He said his job required him to run his die in full manual mode. “Often I have to drop into the treetops between trees hoping to keep the signal,” he said. “Of course, the only downside to the Matrice is that the propellers are fixed. It’s not like a Mavic where the propellers are flexible.” A collision with a tree branch can result in serious damage to the propellers and potentially the loss of the expensive drone.
He added that aspiring animal rescuers shouldn’t expect to get rich from their efforts, at least not until a new rescue industry emerges in a few years.
“Because I have a TV show, of course I get paid,” he said. He recommended that certified drone pilots focus their efforts on more lucrative pursuits and treat animal rescue as purely volunteer work. “You really have to make money from filming. Real estate is obviously the best way to make money from drones or inspecting power lines,” he said.
As for using drones for animal rescue, “it’s definitely a matter of the heart,” he said.
Read more about how drones are doing good in the world: catching poachers, tracking down trash, and helping communities recover from wildfires.
Jim Magill is a Houston-based writer with nearly a quarter-century of experience in technical and economic developments in the oil and gas industry. After retiring as senior editor at S&P Global Platts in December 2019, Jim began writing about emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, robots and drones and how they contribute to our society. In addition to DroneLife, Jim is a Forbes.com contributor and his work has been featured in the Houston Chronicle, US News & World Report and Unmanned Systems, a publication of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
Miriam McNabb is Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a marketplace for professional drone services, and is a fascinated observer of the burgeoning drone industry and drone regulatory environment. Miriam has authored over 3,000 articles focused on the commercial drone space and is an international speaker and recognized figure in the industry. Miriam graduated from the University of Chicago and has over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for emerging technologies.
For advice or writing in the drone industry email Miriam.
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