Drone technology provides air support
Jim Scolman photo
Officer Derrick Lether flies the drone and speaks to Donna and Payton, age 1, at the Monroe Farmers Market Wednesday, Aug. 12.
”I like to show (Payton) all the wonderful things,” Donna said.
MONROE — In hopes of being on the cutting edge of technology, the city its now operating an Unmanned Aerial System program. The drones are available for a wide variety of uses in the city. The first recorded flight was June 5.
Earlier in the year, the Police Department’s K-9 unit was assisted by a third-party who flew a drone overhead, while officers were responding to a call in a field with low visibility at ground level. Police Department spokeswoman Debbie Willis said the officers immediately noticed the benefit of having a drone overhead. According to Willis, the amount of assistance the drone gave officers was a deciding factor for planning to start a city drone program.
Two drones were purchased by the city. Sergeant Chuck Fuller, a FAA-licensed drone pilot, oversees the drone program.
The police department receives “five or six emails a month” from other city departments requesting the use of the drone, according to Fuller. He added the drone is used the majority of the time by departments other than the police, although operated by officers.
The implementation of drone technology will not only increase safety for officers but also assist various other city departments.
Based on city reports, the drone has already assisted city departments on multiple occasions for uses such as planning land development and taking aerial shots for grant proposals. The city says the drones can also be used for promotional videos, parks inspections, city infrastructure maintenance and building maintenance and inspections.
Fuller stated it will be the most helpful with general safety; not general surveillance. The city’s website states drone technology can only be used for specific operations including:
• Situational awareness: assessing damage in hazardous conditions.
• Search and rescue: assist with missing person investigations.
• Tactical deployment: help provide awareness to support officers/equipment being sent into emergency situations.
• Crime scene investigation: document, measure, locate, and assist in the investigation of a crime scene.
• Traffic collision investigation: document, measure, locate, and assist in collision investigations.
• Search warrant: collect evidence of a crime under an approved judicial search warrant.
As with most drone programs, a big concern from the public is privacy. Each time a drone is flown, the flight is logged in a UAS usage report posted to the city’s drone program webpage.
The Police Department does not use the drone for general surveillance using a drone were to occur, although unlikely, officers would need to obtain a search warrant to do so.
Anyone who owns a drone must be an FAA licensed drone pilot to fly. The pilots within the police department also operate with a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA). Operating with this certificate means drone pilots must fly under the statutory requirements for public aircraft but allows operators to self-certify UAS and to perform flights under governmental instruction.
Monroe Officer Derrick Lether, an FAA licensed drone pilot, explained the COA makes it possible for drone pilots to fly above the 400-foot ceiling placed on public unmanned aircraft, and also makes it possible for the drone to be operated remotely or from a moving vehicle or vessel.
Currently, the police department has three licensed pilots but the goal is for each city department to have licensed personnel according to Fuller.
Taking photos and videos for land grants was not in the foreseen future for drone usage, but according to Fuller, he believes the drone will find more uses as the program progresses.
“It’s amazing what these things can do,” said Fuller.
Lether said the drone was used recently during a call responding to a tent on top of a building in Downtown Monroe. Lether explained it is safer for officers to observe the area from a “birds-eye view” to assess the situation and make sure officers on the ground know what to expect.
“The biggest thing is situational awareness, this is basically an eye in the sky,” Fuller said.
Fire District 7 is currently in the process of creating a drone program as well, according to spokeswoman Heather Chadwick said. She added that District 7 has been assisted by the use of a drone from the Getchell Fire District. Getchell began its drone program in summer 2017 (link is to 2018 Tribune story).
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