National Association of Counties
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 Drones assist county sheriffs’ search and rescue missions

By Charlie Ban

Unmanned aircraft have garnered most of their news coverage for their role in targeting terrorists overseas, but domestically they serve many of the same functions as their military counterparts.

Although most are no bigger than a radio-controlled plane, unmanned aircraft — or drones — are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, which has given clearance for four counties’ sheriff’s offices to use them.

Photo courtesy of Mesa County, Colo.

Mesa County, Colo.’s fixed-wing drone can be launched by hand and fly for up to an hour.

Mesa County, Colo. has been a leader in using drones for search and rescue operations. Ben Miller coordinates the program.

“We don’t need them to blow people up, but the rest of the stuff they could do opens up a lot of options,” he said. “It allows us to get that aerial view for a reasonable price. It’s certainly cheaper than flying a helicopter.”

What started as a throwaway line at the water cooler about how cool it would be to have an unmanned aircraft became a years-long process for Miller to bring drones to Mesa County, which came to fruition in 2010. Since then, the office has flown 25 missions, logging just under 140 hours of flight.

The drones most frequently serve to exclude wide swaths of land while performing searches, using cameras mounted on the aircraft. Their usefulness is measured not so much in what they definitively find as what they rule out

“Nobody has had that ‘save,’ that image of a lost child wandering in the woods, but I’m convinced this technology has that capability,” Miller said. “Instead, we can use it to narrow the territory we have to search manually, which saves a lot of time and effort.”

The course of Miller’s research into drones led him to partnerships with manufacturers in Canada and Colorado who provided Mesa County with aircrafts for the price of the materials. The direct operational cost, including replacement parts and electricity to charge the drones, totals $3.36 an hour.

The sheriff’s department has two drone aircraft from which to choose — a helicopter, which can fly for 12 minutes, and a plane that is launched by hand that can fly for an hour. They both can be outfitted with infrared cameras, and both transmit video and still images to the control unit.

Even without the deals Mesa County got, Miller said drones could be affordable, with models available for close to $50,000.

Web Extra

Click here to view a video of Mesa County's unmanned helicopter.

Click here to view a video of Mesa County's fixed-wing unmanned aircraft.

Miller likens drones to a canine unit in terms of the training necessary for deputies to use them.

“You don’t have to hire a new officer to specialize in drone flight,” he said. “There’s enough automation that you can train someone very quickly, and they can easily maintain proficiency.”

In addition to search and rescue missions, Mesa County uses its drones to assist the state highway patrol and local fire departments in taking aerial photographs of vehicle crashes and fires.

“We’ve been able to see hot spots in fires from overhead that people on the ground can’t see,” Miller said. “In that case, the firefighters were made aware of where another fire could have flared up.”

When flying lower than 400 feet, the sheriff’s office gets search warrants if the drone’s flight path can see into an area like a fenced-off back yard in which a resident has a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Polk County, Fla. toyed with using drones, but decided against it. Orange County, Texas has FAA clearance, but works with a local contractor to provide a drone when it needs one.


Unmanned Aircraft
A variety of governments, agencies and educational institutions have clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly unmanned aircraft — or drones. Their uses vary from public safety — conducting aerial search and rescue operations or surveillance — to commercial, including photography, aerial mapping, crop monitoring, advertising, communications and broadcasting. Clearance to fly, however, does not mean the organization currently flies drones. Some, such as Miami-Dade County, have investigated the process and received clearance, but have not yet begun flying drones on their own.


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