AUSTIN (KXAN) — Just this month, the Texas Game Warden Search and Rescue Drone Program has helped locate two missing people and track down a violent crime suspect.

It launched in 2018, and Lieutenant and certified drone pilot Matthew Bridgefarmer said it’s been monumental.

“Game wardens have always worked search and rescue missions across the state, and it seemed like a natural tool to add to our toolbox,” he said.

Most urban first responder agencies have their own drones, but the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) comes in when rural departments need help.

“If we’re talking way out in West Texas, it could take several hours for a helicopter to get to a wooded area for a search,” said Lt. Bridgefarmer, adding that before TPWD acquired a drone fleet – that scenario was often the case.

While the tool has proven imperative, Lt. Bridgefarmer said drones are pricey – and don’t always have the best longevity.

“Part of our fleet is very outdated, being we started back in 2018, you can imagine how technology progresses, so yes, they outdate themselves real quick,” he said. “Only 14 of our drones are thermal camera capable which obviously is crucial in the search and rescues we’ve had lately. So one thing we’re really hoping to do when we update is our fleet is getting more with thermal camera capability.”

To keep the program successful, Bridgefarmer said the department would need more funding, which typically comes from the state and donations from the Gear Up for Game Wardens foundation.