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Underwater Rover Could Aid Search and Rescue Missions in Norton Sound

Aerial image of dark blue water, a field of ice chunks, and a small vessel involved in search-and-rescue efforts.

Throughout the winter, search-and-rescue missions have been deployed to recover victims who have fallen through open ice, but thanks to new technology, the recovery of objects, and even people, may become easier in the Norton Sound region.

The Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation (NSEDC) announced late last month that they will be acquiring an underwater drone for all member communities to use in search-and-rescue missions.

Laureli Ivanoff is the Communications Director for NSEDC and points out that the Norton Sound region is a fishing region, with all of its communities being on water.

“With the warming winters, our winters are completely different these days. There’s a lot of open water, so we’re seeing a growing number of through-the-ice search-and-rescue operations, and our board really saw a need to have advanced tools in our region.”

Ivanoff did not disclose the cost of the drone or training but says they are looking to purchase a Video Ray Defender remote-operating vehicle based on expert recommendation.

The propeller-driven drone is tethered to an operating system based above the ice while the drone goes underwater, using both a camera and sonar to send images back to a computer. It even has a “manipulator arm” that can grab objects underwater.

First Sergeant Daniel Harrelson is the village public safety officer and mayor in White Mountain. He recounts an incident in which a “cherished” elder in the community, Lincoln “Mike” Simon, fell through ice early this winter:

“If we would have had a piece of equipment that we could use as a rapid response, such as this drone, I think we might have had better results.”

Lincoln has not yet been recovered. In that search, rescuers had to wait several days for a drone to come from outside the region. According to Harrelson, the search continued from early November to a few days before Christmas. He does believe that there will be some renewed efforts to look for Simon this Spring, once snow and storms subside.

Harrelson, who is also an NSEDC board chair, says that the drone would be based in Nome and be flown out to communities when needed. The required training to operate the machine takes three days.

“We’ve talked about trying to get folks trained in each of these communities. That’s the goal. And in the interim, if we can get some guys trained out of Nome or proficiently trained from some of the villages, those people may be able to go down and assist some of the other villages in case there is an incident that requires the use of a drone.”

While NSEDC does not yet have a timeline for the drone’s arrival, Harrelson hopes it will arrive within the next few months so that training can begin over the summer, when waters in the region are open.

The funds were allocated during NSEDC’s February 2018 Quarterly meeting, along with scholarship increases for qualifying secondary education students and over $172,000 in Community Energy Fund Projects for Elim and Diomede.

Image at top: A drone image of search efforts in icy Golovin Bay in late 2018 for Lincoln “Mike” Simon. Photo courtesy of searcher Dennis Davis of Shishmaref.

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