Animal Rescue Drones: Doug Thron
Drone pilot and photographer Douglas Thron travels the world in the aftermath of natural disasters, using drones to rescue animals.
By Jim Magill
Natural disasters – hurricanes, forest fires and tornadoes – leave behind them a path of destruction, claiming dozens of victims, human of course, but also animal.
Rescuing animals lost or stranded in disasters has become the life’s work of drone pilot and aerial photographer/cinematographer Douglas Thron. Using a Matrice 210 V2 drone, equipped with a FLIR XT2 camera, which integrates a high-resolution thermal sensor and a 4K visual camera, as well as a searchlight, Thron found and rescued animals in distress in remote areas from Kentucky and Colorado to the Bahamas and Australia.
Thron’s rescues are chronicled in a television show, “Doug to the Rescue”, produced by Curiosity Stream and available on HBO Max.
“I’ve always loved animals,” Thron said in an interview. “As a kid growing up in Richardson, Texas outside of Dallas, I raised orphaned baby possums, squirrels, raccoons, and beavers.”
While working as an aerial cinematographer, filming footage of manned aircraft, such as Cessna planes and helicopters, he became an early adopter of drone technology.
“I saw that someone had footage of Phantom Ones at the start of the drones and I was blown away by the footage,” he said. “I sold my experimental seaplane and bought one of those early Phantom drones and started doing aerial cinematography from there.”
In his work with shows such as Nat Geo and Discovery, he met an animal rescuer who used infrared goggles at night to locate and rescue animals affected by natural disasters.
“I said, ‘Damn, I wonder if I could put one on a drone.’ Fast forward to about eight months later, I was in the Bahamas after a hurricane and I was using drones to try and find dogs,” Thron recalled.
With his Matrix drone mounted with an infrared camera, Thron searched the night for dogs among the 30-foot-tall piles of debris created by Hurricane Durian, a Category 5 storm that swept through the island nation in September 2019 with winds up to 180 mph.
“At first it was difficult because I was the first to do this,” he said. “It was super difficult and frustrating because it took hours and hours to get things working and it wasn’t worth it. Now everything is working like a champ, all bugs have been fixed.”
One of the first difficulties he encountered was the sensitivity of the infrared camera equipment. The surface of the ground in the Bahamas retained a lot of heat even at night, which made it difficult to distinguish between the dogs’ heat signatures and those of the surrounding environment. This situation improved when the XT2 camera came out, allowing it to switch from infrared camera mode to visual camera mode.
“But you would still get false readings hot, from an ashtray lid or a magnifying glass on the side of a tree,” he said. Thron mounted a spotlight that would move simultaneously with the infrared camera, so he could switch the camera to visual mode and be able to see what was recording the heat signature, whether it was an animal in distress or just a rock on the ground.
Drones for animal rescue: saving baby koalas
In 2020, Thron traveled to Australia, which was devastated by a series of massive wildfires, to help rescue stranded koalas and other animals. “Koalas were special,” he said. “I had never seen a wild koala before.”
The large fires had scorched an area the size of the state of Oklahoma, destroying thousands of acres of habitat. Thron and his team were able to rescue dozens of koalas, climbing burnt trees and setting live traps at the base of the trees to catch animals in distress.
Since then, Thron has responded to numerous natural disasters in the United States, including wildfires in Colorado and the recent series of tornadoes that devastated large swaths of Kentucky. A number of these rescues proved dramatic and difficult.
Flying his drone over a hurricane-ravaged part of Louisiana in the weeks following a storm, Thron found a number of dogs chained up and left for dead.
“When you get to them, they are starving. Sometimes they are lifeless. Other times they are really defensive, just trying to bark. They’re probably hallucinating at this point because they haven’t eaten for several weeks,” he said.
“If I hadn’t been out there flying the drone, those animals would have suffered continuously, chained to cars or chained to a small dog house.”
In another case, Thron rescued a number of cats that had been badly burned in a fire. “I have the spotlight on and have to chase after the animal, sometimes while simultaneously flying the drone and hoping the drone battery lasts,” he said. “I don’t fly a drone with gloves on, so I have to grab it with my bare hands and grab whatever part I can. They scratched and bit like hell.
Another rescue involved freeing a pregnant dog that had been trapped under a pile of debris. “I was able to free her and she gave birth to nine puppies the next day.”
Train future animal rescuers
Thron has a few words of warning for those who would like to follow in his footsteps and use drones for animal rescue. He recommended that future rescuers first become proficient drone pilots, skilled in the use of their aerial vehicles and related equipment.
He said his job requires him to use his Matrix in full manual mode. “Frequently I have to drop down between the trees, into the canopy, hoping to keep the signal going,” he said. “The only downside to the Matrix is of course that the propellers are fixed. It’s not like a Mavic, where the propellers are flexible. A collision with a tree branch can cause serious damage to the propellers and the potential loss expensive drone.
He added that would-be animal rescuers should not expect to get rich from their efforts, at least not until a new rescue industry develops in a few years.
“Because I have a TV show, obviously I get paid,” he said. He recommended that certified drone pilots focus their efforts on more lucrative pursuits and treat animal rescue as a strictly voluntary effort. “You really have to make money filming. Real estate is obviously the best way to make money with drones or inspecting power lines,” he said.
As for using drones for animal rescue, “it’s definitely a labor of love,” he said.
Learn more about drones doing good in the world: catching poachers, tracking litter, and helping communities rebuild after wildfires.
Jim Magill is a Houston-based writer with nearly a quarter century of experience covering technical and economic developments in the oil and gas industry. After retiring in December 2019 as an editor at S&P Global Platts, Jim began writing about emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, robots and drones, and how they contribute to our company. In addition to DroneLife, Jim is a Forbes.com contributor and his work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, US News & World Report, and Unmanned Systems, a publication of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
Miriam McNabb is Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a marketplace for professional drone services, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and drone regulatory environment. Miriam has written over 3,000 articles focused on the commercial drone space and is an international speaker and recognized industry figure. Miriam is a graduate of the University of Chicago and has over 20 years of high tech sales and marketing experience for new technologies.
For drone industry advice or writing, email Miriam.
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