Riverside County plans to test the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to enhance its search-and-rescue operations, particularly in the San Jacinto Mountain areas.

“We’re constantly monitoring new technology that’s more effective and will improve our operations,” said Chief Deputy Kevin Vest of the Sheriff’s Department.

Having seen the success of this technology during fires in Northern California and flooding incidents in Colorado, Vest said the county is working with Sentera LLC of Minnesota to test its UAV for one year. The evaluation period will likely start in late May or early June after substantial training of personnel.

He stressed this equipment will be used only for search-and-rescue missions. There is not intent for an aerial observer. The fixed-wing technology is much less compliant with “spy in the sky” purposes.

The drones will enable the search process to begin earlier, particularly when the sheriff’s aircraft might be on another mission. But he stressed it does not obviate the need for the Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit.

The lost or injured hiker will still need to be found and physically extricated from the site.

One aspect of the year-long evaluation will be whether the drones are more cost effective than helicopters. “[Helicopters] are pricey to operate on an hourly basis,” Vest noted.

Drones are small enough, about the size of a desk, Vest said, that they can be transported in vehicles and will not have to be stationed at Hemet-Ryan Airbase.

The UAVs will have cameras and heat sensors. The photographs can be transmitted to the ground for review and the sensors may detect body heat, particularly during winter searches.

“They could identify a person under a bush,” Vest said.