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Helping Them Home: Project Lifesaver now using drone technology to find lost children

For more than ten years, a program in Olmsted County has helped find children with autism or other cognitive disabilities who wander off.

It’s called Project Lifesaver: it’s where law enforcement use radio technology to pinpoint a lost child’s location and then find them before it’s too late.

Now, a new piece of technology is helping them find missing children faster than ever before.

It’s like a great big game of hide and seek.

These deputies and officers from several local agencies are given one simple task.

Find this deputy, who they call the "rabbit," somewhere near Stewartville.

But this is more than a game. It’s part of quarterly training for Project Lifesaver.

Every child enrolled in the program wears a transmitting device with a unique frequency.

If he or she goes missing, a team hones in on those radio signals to track them down.

"What they do is they spread out, they try to triangulate," explained Rochester Police Officer Greg Jeardeau. "So if we have more than three triangulate we spread out even further and then we’re able to figure out where the source of signal is coming from and then they keep working their way toward the center of the source until we discover where they’re at."

Since Olmsted County got on board with the program in 2007, the Project Lifesaver team has been dispatched 36 times.

"With typical kids, parents explain so if you wander off something could happen to you and that makes an impression on kids," said James Rechs, Executive Director of the RT Autism Awareness Foundation. "Whereas kids who have autism may not process all that stuff and so for them they may have a thought, I want to run out to the park, I want to go to the river and they just go."

That’s why the Benschoter family of Rochester signed up for the program.

Their daughter Ashley, who has autism, and is nonverbal, would often just take off. 

"She wouldn’t be able to communicate in any way as to where she lives or anything like that," said Tanya, Ashley’s mother. "You don’t know what she would get into. She loves water and she’s a good swimmer but you don’t want to take that chance that she might get on the water and something bad would happen in that situation."

It also  helps Ashley get to know law enforcement.

The same officer comes every couple of months to change the transmitter’s batteries. 

"We have one person we can contact with the sheriff’s or the police department and we get to see that same person often and get to know them and more important get to know Ashley," said Ashley’s father Brian. "So if something were to happen I think that we’d have even better results."

Now, the Rochester Police Department’s new drone is making the program more efficient than ever before.

"Once the drone figures a signal it’ll be able to take a large area if it’s a wooded area, and continue to do a circle and do a figure 8, and then it could eventually get a strong signal and hover right over that spot," Officer Jeardeau explained. "Then from the ground we could walk and then walk towards the drone knowing the signal is right below it."

Using the drone from up above, and tools on the ground, it takes these officers just minutes to find the rabbit at the water treatment plant. 

While it’s fun to find him, for these officers, when the real deal happens it’s no game.

"When somebody’s missing, we know that person’s gone, their family is scared to death," said Officer Jeardeau. 

"When you are looking for them especially when it’s one of your own clients, it does amp it up a bit because you have that personal bond with the kid," explained Rochester Police Officer Patrick Hoult. 

While they hope it’ll never come to that, they have the tools to save lives.

There are currently 78 clients enrolled in Project Lifesaver in Southeast Minnesota.

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