Aerial drones credited with life-saving rescues in northern Ontario

Scott Grant, chief of the Moosonee Volunteer Fire Department, says a $46,000 investment has already saved two lives in the last week, alone.
A red fire truck door.
Rescue teams with the Moosonee Volunteer Fire Department have deployed drones in 12 incidents in 2022-23, including two life-saving incidents last week. (Facebook: @Moosonee Volunteer Fire Department)

Scott Grant, the chief of the Moosonee Volunteer Fire Department, says a $46,000 investment has already saved two lives in the last week alone.

A DJI 30 Matrice thermal drone, purchased by the department just over a year ago, has already flown to more than a dozen incidents in the region, including finding a man lost in the bush on Wednesday night. 

And on Sunday night volunteer firefighters located a woman  – already showing signs of hypothermia – trapped on an ice chunk in the Moose River. 

The dramatic rescue began with a call to 9-1-1 and local firefighters about 9:30 p.m.

"There's a woman, she's out there screaming on the ice," Grant said. "Obviously she seems lost and she's quite far out there." 

A couple of weeks earlier, the ice had begun its imminent, annual breakup, and several patches of open water were visible.

Grant said he contacted his drone team, who met him by the shore of the river. The sun had set, and crew's flashlights became nearly useless in trying to find the woman on the river. Grant spoke to the lady using a bullhorn, encouraging her to remain calm while teams planned a route across the treacherous ice.

"I'm sure it's quite terrifying being out there, especially when it's getting dark out," Grant said. "We could barely make her out at that point. And we can't send crews out on an ice surface without knowing the location of where they're going."

Out of fear or panic, the lady also began wandering across the ice floe, Grant said, making it difficult to pin her exact location down. It also put her in danger of plunging into the icy water.

A black drone sits on a white background.
The Moosonee Volunteer Fire Department purchased a drone model called the DJI Matrice, shown here. (

While cold-water rescue teams and firefighters prepared on shore, Grant deployed the drone team. 

"We ended up locating her approximately 600 meters from shore," Grant said, adding that the drone's thermal camera was able to locate her in the dark, "locking on" her location.

"Once we had her location, we ordered the drone to hover directly over top of the individual. So even though we could not see her, we knew exactly where she was."

Rescue teams then were able to navigate to the point, set the woman in an inflatable vessel, and pull her back to shore.

The entire operation, he said, took about 40-45 minutes, in a situation where every minute counts.

Once on shore, Grant said, the woman was taken to a local health clinic with signs of hypothermia. She has since been "feeling better," Grant said, and is resting at home.

The drone in action

Grant says the drone represents a "fantastic opportunity" for search and rescue operations.

"Even if we know where the individual is, let's say, on the ice," Grant said. "We can use that drone and put it up in the air and get a good 360 degree view of what we're going into."

"It definitely gives us a lot more confidence to be able to know exactly what we're getting into or give us a better idea of what we're entering," Grant said. "It gives us a really good ability to plan further a few steps ahead of time."

The drone allows for a full aerial survey of the area, saving hours of work for rescue teams, who typically will search an area by arranging themselves and covering ground in a grid-pattern.

"It really also helps ensure that no area gets missed," he said. "No area gets passed over."

No area gets passed over- Scott Grant, Moosonee Volunteer Firefighter

The Moosonee Volunteer Fire Department joins a list of emergency services using drone technology to save lives, or in some cases, investigate crimes.

In 2021, SafeSight Exploration announced they had developed a new drone specifically adapted to operate in underground mine rescue situations, where debris and smoke can obstruct rescuers.

Ted Hanley, vice-president of Ontario Mine Rescue, said a rescue scenario underground presents a more challenging environment in which to operate a drone, because there are many unknowns, and smoke, fire and debris can impede their sensors.

"The UAV [drone] or any robotic technology that's unmanned, being able to inspect an area during an emergency is potentially bringing us back that missing percentage of information that can allow us to make a safe decision on whether to send or not send rescuers into an area," Henley said.