Interview with Timothy Gillespie, MD of SWARM, on SAR Drones

Timothy Gillespie Headshot

Timothy Gillespie
Managing Director for SWARM

In today’s interview post, we have someone who is a pro, multi-talented, and has a ton of experience in the aviation/drone industry. He goes by the name Timothy Gillespie and happens to be the Managing Director for SWARM and FAA Pilot. His SWARM organization is a worldwide network of RC multicopter pilots for search and rescue operations.

In this interview, we talk in-depth with Tim on his drone background, SAR Drones Network, search and rescue drones, ways of volunteering up for a mission, challenges faced within the SAR industry, and so on.

If you are interested in the SAR topic or need help in finding a lost person or animal, this interview is for you. Hearing straight from the director is a golden opportunity, and you may learn a few essential facts on the way.

So, let us get started and see what Tim has to say.

Let's Start the Interview

Welcome Timothy Gillespie, tell us about yourself and your background?

I am currently a website designer and technology professional. I did not know what I wanted to be when I grew up and enjoyed trying new things until I mastered them, then went on to something else. The one exception seemed to be technology because there is always something new on the horizon. Some of the stuff I have done are:

Professional Photographer, Boat Captain, Public Information Officer for the Civil Air Patrol, Pilot, Scuba Diver, Water Ski Instructor, Truck Driver, well you get the idea. 🙂

How did you get started in the drone industry?

I have always had a love for flying, photography, and technology. Also, I have looked for ways to be more involved in my passions, but it just became too expensive.

At first, my substitute for flying was all the flight simulators and an occasional $100 hamburger run with a buddy. Then came drones, and when I tried one out, I was instantly hooked. Everything about them fit all my passions, and I wondered how it could be that I had not been involved with them from the beginning.

Tell us about your SAR Drones Network, what it is and how did it launch?

I started watching a colorful and entertaining fellow named Jim Bowers, who was producing videos about drones. Also, I found out he had started a network of drone pilots called S.W.A.R.M. (Search With Aerial RC Multirotor) for search and rescue missions, and I realize I had to be a part of it.


After I got to know him and became friends, it became evident that I could use my technology skills to help him with this network. I took over as managing director in 2018 and am working hard to grow the network and make sure our pilots are better trained and prepared for the unique needs of using a drone for search & rescue missions and keep up with all the latest tech and regulations. Not an easy task when everyone is a volunteer.

Tell us about your volunteer SAR pilot members and what makes them great?

We have pilots all over the world, and what makes them truly unique is our network is entirely free to those in need. And even with no compensation, they are willing to take time out of their busy lives, using their equipment which costs thousands of dollars sometimes with nothing more than the satisfaction of helping a family in need.

Most of them are also dedicated to being licensed at a cost to them in time and money. Volunteers of all kinds are a special breed, including those that volunteer in other search and rescue organizations.

What SAR mission that you have worked on are you most proud of?

I consider my current mission of growing our network and using innovative technologies to be very important in being able to aid more people all over the world and help everyone stay up to date with the ever-changing rules and technologies.

What type of drones and gear are you using in SAR and why?

Just about any drone with a decent camera used to be enough just to get eyes in the sky. Nowadays, it is becoming increasingly common to use drones with thermal imaging and amazing optical capabilities that allow them to capture and see things that humans would miss.

My personal favorite is the DJI line of drones simply because they seem to be supported by more apps than anyone else which can be a crucial component to flying a successful mission. Software and apps are playing a big part in the search and rescue field, including everything from autonomous mission flying to software to help identify targets in images captured by the drone.

You have studied at Orange Coast College Aviation Pilot Training. Awesome! How did you manage that?

I had another passion for the marine world and took a course in coastal navigation, not Aviation Pilot Training. It helped prepare me for a U.S. Merchant Marine Officer license. Still, all the navigation training transitioned naturally into skills I would later use in search and rescue both on the ground and in the air.

Do you have FAA's Part 107 certification? If yes, what was involved in getting it?

Because I was not considered current for my part 61 pilots license, I was required to study and take the exams for a part 107 the same as anyone with no aviation experience at all. I elected to study with RemotePilot101 and would highly recommend them to anyone for first and recurrent part 107 licensing.

What are some of the advantages of using drones for search and rescue operations?

The absolute best thing about a drone for search and rescue to me is the amount of area that can be covered in a short amount of time. In many cases, the drones can get a view of places either unsafe or unreachable by humans.

Drones with thermal capabilities are handy for certain types of missions, but unfortunately out of most budgets. There are, of course, many other benefits, but these are at the top for me.

What are your thoughts on the future of automated UAVs for search and rescue missions?

One of my preferred ways of flying missions is to plan a flight so that it is automated and guarantees proper coverage of an assigned search area. The technology is impressive for these automated missions and getting better and more reliable all the time.

I believe they will be relied on heavily in the future, and the usefulness for them will continue to surprise us all. Hardware is only one of the pieces of the equation. AI and software will play a big part in what these drones will be capable of.

Other than SAR, what are some of the other unbelievable ways you have seen drones in action?

I thought I had done just about all the things you could do with a drone such as automated flights, 360-degree imaging, 3D mapping, site surveys, and the list goes. Then one of our members told me they were using their drone to plot and document burial sites. That surprised me!

A couple of other areas I have seen them used that intrigues me is things like pipe and other interior inspection drones, and I think the underwater drones are useful too.

An example of this would have been on a vehicle that crashed into a river, and the local authorities refused to get involved. The underwater drone could have been deployed to see if any occupants were trapped. Unfortunately, the victims were later found miles from the site. I am always amazed by how accurate the measurement capabilities for those uses too.

Obvious uses:

  • Fire
  • Accident reconstruction
  • Delivery
  • Medical supplies delivery
  • Monitoring agriculture
  • Law enforcement and security
  • Conservation
  • Aircraft and ship inspection
  • Utility inspections
  • Construction planning
  • Insurance and roof surveys
  • Personal transportation
  • Wireless internet access in remote locations
  • Film and photography use

Not so obvious:

What advice would you give to families in need who want drone assistance to find their lost loved ones or an animal?

The first thing I always recommend is to contact any local authorities that might provide these services. It is something we always do before sending someone out anyway. More and more organizations are adopting drone technologies and many times have better equipment and better-trained pilots because they have big budgets not available to our volunteer pilots.

Commonly, individuals and even other organizations will reach out using our search request available on our website for both people and animal requests when all alternatives have been exhausted. Families reach out to us all the time because local authorities have exhausted their resources or flat out refused to help.

Another thing is for people to use our website to remind them of other things they can do in addition to help in the search. We have a lot of tips and information there. We are also trying to get everyone involved to post updates to any mission, so everyone involved can be updated. Even if we’re not directly involved, we can still help by spreading the word and providing helpful information and tips.

How do you think the current state of drone law is affecting the SAR industry?

The main thing affected right now is if we are asked to assist, possibly to a local authority that does not yet have the pilots or equipment, but would like to use drones to help. In those cases, they might require the pilots to not only be part 107 but also have some other specific training to be able to work within the requirements they must meet.

When you are not working, where could we locate you?

Most likely in my Van on a road trip.

Are you satisfied with our interview?

It is always good to take stock as to why I do this and connect with other organizations like yours to help spread the word and increase public awareness.

Check Out SWARM on the Web!

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