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CNM Student Designs New Search and Rescue Beacon that’s Launched by Drone

The beacon was built as part of the Internet of Things class and could be used by local first responders
CNM Student Designs New Search and Rescue Beacon that’s Launched by Drone
IoT instructor Brian Rashap, center, explains how the beacon works to Sergeant Christopher Schroeder, second from left, and other local first responders. Photo by Pat Vasquez-Cunningham.

Feb 18, 2021

Sergeant Christopher Schroeder with the Albuquerque Police Department’s Open Space Unit says searching for a lost hiker in the Sandia mountains or foothills can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Even if the hiker has cell service they often can’t explain where they are. Sometimes hikers can use their phone’s GPS to help explain their location, but cell phone batteries often run out during a search, leaving first responders back in the dark. Cell tower triangulation—which can also help pinpoint a location—only works sometimes.

All of these factors are why Sgt. Schroeder was excited to see CNM’s new search and rescue beacon demo last week in the Sandia foothills. The beacon, which was designed by student Saige Martinez during a CNM Ingenuity Internet of Things (IoT) Bootcamp led by instructor Brian Rashap, houses many smart devices including a long-lasting GPS unit. Several of the beacons—which are covered in bright, efficient LED lights—can be flown by a drone into the general area where the hiker might be and then dropped at certain intervals. When the hiker finds one of the beacons—the LEDs last for days and can be seen from a distance—all they have to do is push a well-labeled GPS button to give first responders like Sgt. Schroeder their exact location. 

“With an exact location, all of a sudden that needle goes right to the top of the haystack and we can find the individual much faster,” he says. 

There are other uses for the beacon, too. Inside the demo, Saige and IoT assistant instructor Cecilia Castillo also built-in a heart rate monitor and blood oxygen sensor. Once the lost or injured person has the beacon, they can quickly use those sensors, in conjunction with Particle Boron (Cellular LTE) microcontroller (the brains of the smart beacon), to record and cellularly transmit initial health data to rescuers who are on the way. Down the road, other demo beacons might also include a touchscreen where the lost or stranded person could point to an image of a body and pinpoint where they’re injured. Brian says there could even be two-way communication.

“It’s been an exciting project to work on because I can see the beacon contributing in a lot of ways,” says Saige, also an active member of the National Guard “And I’m thankful that Brian and Cecilia Castillo have designed a class where this kind of innovation can take place. It was a totally optimized learning and development environment.”

Inside the demo beacon there’s a GPS unit, a heart rate monitor, and a blood oxygen sensor, all of which are controlled by a Particle Argon microcontroller.
Inside the demo beacon there’s a GPS unit, a heart rate monitor, and a blood oxygen sensor, all of which are controlled by a Particle Argon microcontroller.

Sgt. Schroeder with APD’s Open Space Unit says health data and two-way communication would be important aids in a rescue because that data would help first responders know how to mobilize. They would know what life-saving equipment to bring, whether they needed ropes for a high-angle rescue, or if they needed to call in a helicopter.

“During rescues it’s hard to pull the lever and start everything right away without knowing what you need,” he says. “We always want to properly allocate our resources.”

Broadly, Sgt. Schroder says it’s great to see a local student like Saige and a local college like CNM build something that could have life-saving real-world implications across the world. 

“I think it’s awesome that this project was born here in Albuquerque, and I’m humbled that Brian and his student wanted our input,” he says. 

Janel Sanchez, left, another IoT graduate, pilots a drone with the beacon attached. When the drone is in place, the beacon is dropped by remote control.
Janel Sanchez, left, another IoT graduate, pilots a drone with the beacon attached. When the drone is in place, the beacon is dropped by remote control.