Stranded in the snow in deep woods, man uses a drone to send an SOS text.

37-year-old Casey Ryan felt very comfortable in the mountains of the Willamette National Forest in Eugene, Oregon. He knew its roads and hiking trails well from his time as a volunteer in a roadside clean-up crew.

These days, he was often there photographing wildlife, and he almost always had his drone with him. It was one of his favorite cameras.

Weather conditions weren’t great on the morning that Ryan decided to go on a short hike with his friend, but snow was common and Ryan felt he knew the area well enough.

Still, as they drove along, the roads became icy. Ryan thought he might turn back, but after a truck passed them coming from the opposite direction, he felt safe enough to keep going. The roads must still be passable in that direction, he reasoned.

Stuck in the Snow

But it wasn’t long before the two men came across a woman who was stranded along the mountain road after her van had plowed into a snowdrift. Ryan and his friend stopped to help her. Ryan tried to line up his truck’s hitch to pull the woman’s van out—and ended up stuck in the same place. The three tried for hours to dig the cars out, but the sun was setting fast.

“The temperature was dropping,” Ryan recalled the hopeless scene. “The snow was now turning to ice blocks around the tires, and I knew we weren’t going to dig out.”

Thirty miles from the closest town, their phones had no signal in the dense forest. Their car radio and walkie-talkies couldn’t transmit any signal far enough. The three travellers prepared to spend the night in their cars. The hikers had survival gear and food to share, so they weren’t terribly worried.

Drones and Smugglers

It was Ryan’s friend who, jokingly perhaps, brought up a news report he had seen about smugglers using drones to drop cell phones into prison yards. For Ryan, it suddenly clicked. There was the solution.

“I was like, ‘That’s ingenious,” Ryan remembered. He excitedly grabbed his drone out of his truck and tried to figure out a way to attach his phone to it. If the drone could bring the cell phone above the tree line, he could send a message to his wife and get help! 

But it wasn’t easy. Ryan’s lightweight drone was not designed to carry anything as heavy as a phone, and there were several failed attempts. Ryan wrapped his phone in paper towel and duct tape and tried tying it to the underside of the drone with some cord.

“As the propellers went, I gave it a little boost,” he explained. The drone struggled under the weight of the phone, but eventually, it started to rise. Ryan used another phone to pilot it. When the drone broke the tree line, the travellers cheered. 

When the drone came back down, Ryan pounced on it. Did his plan work? To his surprise and relief, the SOS message to his wife was sent. He had succeeded in relaying their location. Now, it would be a matter of waiting.

Help on the Way

Back at their home, Ryan’s wife was on it. She had called AAA, but they said they didn’t service the mountain roads. So she tried local law enforcement. Lane County Sheriff’s Office took the call and prepared for a rescue. Ryan’s wife texted this information back to her husband, and when Ryan sent the phone up a second time, his phone received the text. Help was on the way.

Ryan tried to send the phone up a third time, but finally, the little drone’s motor gave out and it crashed back through the tree line and into a pile of snow. The three motorists prepared to spend the night in their cars.

The next morning, help arrived.

Jason Bowman, a search-and-rescue coordinator with the Lane County Sheriff’s Office was impressed. “I’ve been doing search and rescue since 2007, and this was by far the most unique way I’ve ever seen somebody call for help.” Bowman said it was the most memorable rescue of a season with a higher than usual number of calls.

For his part, Ryan isn’t looking to try it again anytime soon. He said he’ll stay off the mountain roads until spring. “Going forward,” he admitted, “I hope I won’t have to do another drone flight rescue.” 

Though it wasn’t smart that Ryan was traveling on an unmaintained winter road in the mountains, to give credit where credit is due, his call-for-help strategy was pretty smart indeed.