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Spanish drone company races to save trapped dogs on La Palma with ‘unprecedented’ rescue mission

Aerocámaras is hoping to lift the animals to safety with a large unmanned aerial vehicle, but is still awaiting last-minute authorization for a move that is not legally allowed

The dogs trapped in two water deposits on La Palma.

A company that specializes in operating large drones will on Monday attempt to rescue several dogs trapped by lava from the volcano on La Palma, in Spain’s Canary Islands.

The CEO of Aerocámaras, Jaime Pereira, warned about the technical difficulties of an operation that has not been attempted before. There are also legal hurdles to be cleared as it is illegal to carry people or animals with drones, and the rescue is still pending last-minute authorization by the government body in charge of managing the crisis on Palma, where lava has affected 789 hectares, destroyed 1,835 buildings and forced hundreds to evacuate.

But time is running out for the dogs, one of which has already died. Pereira and two other company officials, all professional drone pilots, flew to the Canary Island of Tenerife on Sunday and were scheduled to take a ferry to La Palma on Monday. Transporting the approximately 100 kilograms of equipment was made possible with help from the airline Iberia and the marine fuel provider Peninsula, the company said in a statement.

The dogs are trapped inside two water deposits in Todoque, one of the first municipalities to be devastated by the advancing lava streams from the volcano on Cumbre Vieja, which began erupting on September 19. News of their plight emerged last week, and for several days now they have been fed and given water with light drones operated by two local companies.

Images of the dogs shared by one of these firms, Ticom Soluciones, triggered a reaction on social media, where thousands of people demanded that something be done to save them. Meanwhile, the volcano is showing no signs of letting up – on Sunday, new large lava flows began streaming down on the north flank at around 8.30pm, and up to 30 quakes were recorded in the south of the island in the last few hours, one measuring 4.6 on the Richter scale.

Drones are being used by the Spanish Military Emergency Unit (UME) to monitor the lava flow of the Cumbre Vieja volcano.
Drones are being used by the Spanish Military Emergency Unit (UME) to monitor the lava flow of the Cumbre Vieja volcano.LUISMI ORTIZ (AFP)

Aerocámaras, a company from the northwestern region of Galicia, is licensed by Spain’s air security agency AESA to operate drones for a variety of purposes, including assistance during emergency situations. Now, its CEO wants to attempt something brand new. “This is unprecedented, it’s never been attempted before anywhere in the world. But it’s either that or let them die,” said Pereira.

The company, he said, has adapted a drone normally used to carry cargo to ships crossing the Strait of Gibraltar. This device is 2.5 meters in diameter and can carry loads of up to 24 kilograms. Pereira described it as “very stable when it comes to transporting loads.”

But it’s another thing to carry living creatures, which in this case would have to be transported 450 meters in the air to the nearest safe spot outside the confined area.

Pereira said that devising a system to catch the dogs has been the hardest part of all. His engineering team has come up with a net that can be brought down with wet dog food in the center. “The key thing is that the dogs need to be enticed to walk right into the center of the net,” said Pereira. Once at that spot, the drone would lift the net and carry the animal to safety. This can only be done one animal at a time, further complicating the rescue. “If any problem should arise, we’ve developed a quick-release system that would leave the animal back on the ground,” he added.

Securing authorization

Compounding the challenge is the fact that what Aerocámaras is trying to do is, in fact, illegal: Spanish legislation does not allow the use of drones to transport people or animals. What’s more, the dogs are located within a confined zone because of the volcanic eruption – which has made an overland rescue impossible.

Pereira said his company has already sent all necessary documents to the Advanced Command Post, which is in charge of managing the volcano crisis. A local animal welfare group that has been playing an active role in helping the dogs, leales.org, has asked authorities to eliminate all legal hurdles and allow Aerocámaras to attempt the rescue.

Drones have been playing a leading role since the eruption began on September 19. Scientists, emergency services and news organizations have benefited from images taken in spots made inaccessible by the lava. In the early days, a private drone operated by an amateur pilot named Antonio Carrillo helped many local residents check on the state of their properties. Authorities then prohibited Carrillo from flying his drone, citing existing legislation, and this triggered a huge protest on social media.

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