Drone Pilot Uses Infrared and 180x Zoom to Save Animals from Disaster
Aerial cinematographer Doug Thron uses a commercial drone equipped with both an infrared and a normal camera to detect and save trapped animals from disaster zones — including most recently in Ukraine.
Thron uses a DJI Matrice 210 with a Zenmuse Z30 lens that allows for a total magnification of 180x. The drone that he uses has an infrared camera attached that will detect an animal’s body heat, then using his powerful zoom, he can check to see whether his infrared reading is accurate.
Speaking to PetaPixel, he explains how he navigates areas of devastation to help trapped and helpless animals, who are innocent victims of a tornado, wildfire, or most recently, a bloody war.
“I was in the Bahamas after a big hurricane and was using my drone to try and find dogs in the rubble. It was super hard because the piles were 30 foot tall.
“I thought if I could put an infrared camera on it, I could see the body heat of the animals. I tried it out, and I was blown away because it worked so well,” explains Thron, who is based in Miami.
“The next thing you know, after five months in the Bahamas rescuing dogs I went straight to Australia to rescue koalas due to the wildfires. Because it was so hot in the trees, you’d get false readings. So I got the idea to put custom spotlights on the drones where I can turn the spotlight on, then toggle back and forth between an infrared camera and a regular camera.”
“So the infrared camera can detect the heat, and then I switch to the normal camera with a 180x zoom, to make sure it is in an animal so you don’t climb up a burning tree for nothing.”
Thron says it’s not easy to decipher an infrared image, and it takes practice to determine whether the object on the screen is in fact an animal.
Another skill that requires practice is flying the drone itself. Thron’s total drone cost is around $40,000 in total, and it’s being flown into incredibly dangerous scenarios.
“If a blade even touches a tree branch the whole thing will come crashing down,” says Thron.
“A lot of the situations you drop the drone through a broken part of the building and that blocks the signal. It’s so scary having $40,000 in the air and hoping that everything works and it comes back to you.”
The war in Ukraine is a humanitarian disaster. But often overlooked are the countless number of pets who are left to fend for themselves when their owners have to flee, or are killed because of shelling.
“It’s bleak for the animals there,” says Thron.
“A lot of people had to leave quickly, and a lot of people couldn’t take their animals. In a lot of cases, they’d go to look for their cat, and it was out, but they had to go.
“We’ve been finding animals, cats and dogs. Many of them have been reunited with their owners, but in other cases, their owners have died.
“It’s pretty sad, there’s one instance the husband, wife, and child had all passed away. We found their mother cat and four kittens inside an eight-story apartment building.”
While this tale of tragedy may seem awful, Thron was able to track down the man’s sister, who is helping to rehome the cats, and Thron is even bringing a few of them back to Miami.
“They’re really sweet cats, the Ukrainian cats are especially sweet. You’d have four or five adult cats in the same room, and they all get on fine, that wouldn’t happen with American cats.”
A TV Star
Thron stars in a TV Show on Curiosity Stream called Doug to the Rescue. Season two has just been released, and the cameras follow along as he uses his cutting-edge infrared drone to locate and rescue animals in desperate situations around the globe. The show follows Thron from the East African Grasslands, to the Dominican Republic.
“The infrared works much better at night, a lot of the animals are nocturnal, especially during a disaster. Animals will conserve their energy, especially if it’s hot, animals are smart when it comes to that stuff.”