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Family wants drones used in Lauren Spierer search

Jim Hoffer reporting
April 22, 2014 3:08:33 PM PDT
A high-tech tool was to be brought in to help search for a missing college student, until officials shot down the idea, surprising her family.

Years after Lauren Spierer was last seen, her parents are taking action. They're furious the drone wasn't allowed to be used, saying that prevented a more effective search.

The Westchester County family faced their pain in front of our cameras in hopes that they can the FAA to change its policy on the use of drones in the search for missing people.

And now, a nationally-known search-and-rescue organization is taking the FAA to court to battle for the right to use drones.

It's been nearly three years since a massive search for Lauren Spierer of Scarsdale failed to find any clues. The Indiana University college student disappeared after a night out with friends at a bar near campus.

With hundreds of square miles to cover, the family pinned their hopes on a drone operator from EquuSearch, a non-profit search and rescue team.

"It was nice to know that the tool was available effective and ready to be deployed," said Rob Spierer, Lauren's father.

But the search drone never left the ground. Lauren's parents say the FAA made clear that use of the drone would be illegal.

"That was the most devastating thing I think with the initial search, they were leaving we weren't able to use the drone," said Charlene Spierer, Lauren's mother.

Monday, the group behind the quest to find Lauren, EquuSearch, filed a lawsuit against the FAA challenging the government's ban on the use of unmanned aircraft in searches for missing people.

"There's nothing illegal about people using model aircraft to help people in exactly the same way that people use model aircraft for recreational or hobby purposes," said EquuSearch attorney Brendan Schulman.

"They say they have to protect the airspace," we said.

"That doesn't make any sense," said Schulman.

The FAA says that for safety reasons " anyone who wants to fly an aircraft...manned or unmanned in U-S airspace needs some level of authorization from the FAA."

The agency says it approves emergency Certificates of Authorization for search and rescue operations, sometimes in a matter of hours.

"There's a practical impediment to using that route. It really does not enable a volunteer, private organization like Texas EquuSearch to actually use the technology in an effective way. These are situations where minutes count," said Schulman.

The Spierers say there should be no red tape getting in the way of the use of drones in the search for missing people.

"We were just frantic with anxiety and despair, here's a resource that's available to us that we knew felt could help us greatly and they were going to leave, it was quite difficult," said Ron Spierer.

"It wasn't for commercial use, it wasn't for business. It was to help us find our daughter and I will never understand why we couldn't use that tool," Charlene Spierer said.

The FAA has banned the commercial use of unmanned aircraft to protect air space until it comes up with complete rules for drones.

That has now been pushed back until late next year.

Equu Search's drone remains grounded for now.

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