CRANBURY, NJ - A local drone company aided the search for a missing Canadian filmmaker following a dive on the Alligator Reef off the Florida Keys.
Search and rescue crews recovered the body of filmmaker Rob Stewart, 37, of Toronto, Canada, just before officially calling off the search Friday night.
Stewart went missing after returning to the surface with another diver around 5:30 p.m. Jan. 31, United States Coast Guard Capt. Jaffruy Janszn said during a press conference Friday afternoon.
A joint agency operation was set to be called off after 72 hours Friday evening, but then the body was found.
“The decision to suspend the search is very difficult and not taken lightly,” Janszn said before the recovery. “This area has been searched thoroughly during the last three days.”
Stewart, best known for his work on the award-winning conservation film “Sharkwater,” was performing his third dive of the day on Tuesday with a fellow diver, resurfacing and then disappearing as the first diver was brought on board their boat, Janszn said.
The second diver collapsed once on deck and had to be given oxygen, and when the crew then tried to get Stewart, he was gone, Janszn said.
The Coast Guard immediately deployed a joint agency search operation with the Monroe County Sheriff, Florida Fish and Wildlife and local search and rescue assets, he said.
Janszn said Stewart was an experienced and qualified diver in excellent shape when he performed the 225-foot dives.
As the search continued, Stewart’s filmmaking company called ABJ Drones in Cranbury, New Jersey, for assistance.
“There was a panic call I got (Thursday night) about a missing person in the (Florida) Keys,” ABJ Drones CEO Vip Jain said as he coordinated the company’s efforts in the search from his office. “They immediately wanted to deploy a (drone) pilot for search and rescue.”
Vip contacted his executive team and located a pilot within two hours of the search zone in Florida.
“We scheduled a pilot in about 10 minutes,” he said.
ABJ Drones is the national leader in drone technologies and professional applications including commercial and public safety uses.
The company is building a growing network of more than 250 certified, professional drone pilots throughout the nation that can handle a variety of missions requiring expertise with different flying platforms and payloads.
Vip said one of the pilots, Carlos Herrera, 35, of Miami, Florida, joined the effort on Friday, flying a Phantom drone from a private boat involved with the search, and using a high definition camera while staying close to the surface of the water.
Herrera said that he has been flying drones for six years doing aerial photography, but this was his first search and rescue mission.
“The boat was rocking a lot,” Herrera said. “It was pretty hard to take off and land (the drone).”
He said the drones were flown at both 50-feet and 400-feet over the water to maximize searching the area in an effort to find Stewart.
While he was aware of the urgency of the situation, Herrera said he kept his focus on flying the drone safely and properly.
“I was just focused on trying to find him,” Herrera said. “I didn’t feel pressured at all. I just tried to fly the drone safely.”
Herrera said it wasn’t until he and the other pilot went back to the marina that they found out that Stewart’s body had been recovered.
“On the way back, we saw the Coast Guard planes circling around,” he said. “(The recovery) was pretty far away (from the initial site).”
Even with the official search suspended, Vip said the company had planned to continue to assist Stewart’s company and friends in locating him, which finally happened Friday evening.
“We assured (the family and company) that we are totally behind this whole effort,” Vip said. “We have been in constant contact with them.”
Janszn said the search area was about the size of Connecticut, and was completely “saturated” by search and rescue crews.
Business tycoon, Sir Richard Branson, even brought in a helicopter to help searchers.
ABJ Head of Business Development Hemin Gandhi said that search operations like this one are part of ABJ’s overall business plan and is one of six different sectors professional drones can be effectively used in.
“Our ‘Eyes in the Sky’ program is specifically designed for all the government agencies involved in public safety,” he said. “All of these people who are out there are the best at what they do, but there is still a need for education and an awareness for using the drones in their day-to-day operations and how the drones and their technologies could make their operations even better.”
According to the company, public safety applications can include locating fire victims or firefighters during an incident, police applications and search efforts like the one in Florida.
“Having extra eyes in the sky can use 4K cameras, thermal imaging, just to enhance what they are doing already,” Gandhi said.
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