The park’s fleet of drones help searchers look in tight spaces without sending rescuers into a potentially unsafe situation.

Grand Canyon National Park rangers brought new technology to an old problem, deploying drones in hard-to-reach places in the search for two hikers who were swept away last month while crossing Tapeats Creek.

The park’s fleet of drones help searchers look in tight spaces without sending rescuers into a potentially unsafe situation. The remotely flown craft give crews a whole new view of potentially dangerous operations and allow rangers to make better decisions when time is a factor.

But they can’t change the fact that the Canyon can be a dangerous place, where things can go wrong in a split second. 

On April 15, Lou-Ann Merrell, the 62-year-old wife of boot maker Randy Merrell, was hiking with her step-grandson, Jackson Standefer in the Canyon. As they were crossing Tapeats Creek, they apparently lost their footing and both were swept away.    

Searchers did not have much to go on as they looked for the two hikers. The park used helicopters and about 20 people on foot, then brought in drones in its search. The drones shot video and flew through narrow areas near the creek as the search continued. 

Finally, on April 28, the body of 14-year-old Jackson was recovered.

Merrell remains missing. Her backpack was found May 3, but Jackson’s has not yet turned up. 


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A hike, a creek running high

The incident brought a tragic end to a hike through an area of the Canyon that packs a lot into short distance.

“Mr. Merrell told me they had hiked here every year for the last 40 years,” said Matt Vandzura, chief ranger at the park.

The four hikers started out from Indian Hollow, following Thunder River Trail, spending a night on a scenic red rock area known as the Esplanade. The next day, they made their way deeper into the Canyon, across Surprise Valley, past Thunder River, which comes roaring out of a cave in the cliffs above. 

Hikers typically cross Tapeats Creek just downstream from the Thunder River confluence. That was what the Merrell party’s permit called for, Vandzura said. They were supposed to spend a couple of nights camping along the creek, then go back over Surprise Valley for a night at Deer Creek. After a final night on the Esplanade, they were to hike out. 

But the creek was running high. A wet winter had increased runoff on both Thunder River and Tapeats Creek, which both originate in caves, said Rich Rudow, who has hiked thousands of miles in the Grand Canyon

Vandzura said his understanding was that the group tried to cross together, hand in hand, when the two hikers lost their footing. 

Although the Park Service prefers that people stick to their itinerary, it does not “expect them to risk life and limb to do so,” Vandzura said. 

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Calling in the drones


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It was late in the day when a signal from a personal locating beacon went out, saying that the hikers needed help. 

The Park Service flew about 20 people to the area.

It also called on its fleet of drones. Searchers sent a drone over the Canyon to look into places that helicopters couldn’t go. Tapeats can get narrow in places, Vandzura said.

Up to that point, drones had been primarily used for “over-the-edge calls, where someone fell or jumped,” Vandzura said. Before the park had drones (they have four, with five operators), officials would send in a helicopter, with a team of rescuers and rappelling gear, not sure what they would find. 

But flying, not to mention rappelling out of helicopters, can be dangerous. Doing so quickly, sometimes in the dark, can be even more dangerous. 

Drones allow rescuers to know what they are in for, because people who go over the edge of the Canyon frequently don’t survive the fall. Rescuers want to know, going in, is there a life to save? A need to work fast? Rescuers train to move quickly, but prefer to work carefully, with multiple safety checks.

“We can be going fast. We can be safer going at a more methodical pace,” Vandzura said.

And while rescuers “will take some risks if we can save a life, when there is no life to be saved we will take almost no risk,” he said. Drones can help them make that call.

This spring, rescuers postponed a mission until morning, Vandzura said, after a drone let them know there was nothing to be gained by rappelling along the edge of a cliff as dark was approaching.

They had a “hard conversation” with the family, (another part of the job that technology can’t make easier), and made the recovery the next morning.

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Rescue calls up this year

In the case of the Merrell search, the drones shot video, which could be watched and broken down later. (The video tends to be higher quality than what is shot from a helicopter, Vandzura said.)

Drones also have a smaller footprint in the park because they are not as loud as helicopters.

The personal use of drones is illegal in the park, though Vandzura said that park officials catch about a visitor a week using one. 

Park rangers have had a high number of calls this year, he said. He recalls getting a call March 1 and hasn’t slowed down since them. 

“It’s been a busy summer,” Vandzura said. “We always like to caution people to do a lot of research, to match their ability to the skill of the group and enjoy the park in a safe way.” 


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