Tech Savvy: The drone zone

When law enforcement is in hot pursuit of someone on the run, an eye in the sky can provide critical help in tracking that person down. Instead of a helicopter, some law enforcement agencies are using drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, to provi...

At the CES show this year in Las Vegas the drones included those large enough to carry passengers.
At the CES show this year in Las Vegas the drones included those large enough to carry passengers.

When law enforcement is in hot pursuit of someone on the run, an eye in the sky can provide critical help in tracking that person down.

Instead of a helicopter, some law enforcement agencies are using drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, to provide a bird's eye view of situations. Like any new technology adopted by law enforcement, the applications can seem endless, said Brainerd Police Chief Corky McQuiston.

"Like a lot of technology, I think the sky's the limit," McQuiston said.

A drone would be helpful when searching for a missing person, McQuiston said, or in a pursuit. Hilly, sloping terrain in the area wouldn't be a problem for a drone, he said. At crime scenes, a drone could provide a different perspective, he said, and show investigators a different viewpoint. A drone would be a way to supplement or support the services the police department already provides and to improve those services.

"Do it faster, or at least another way to do it," McQuiston said.


In some situations, a helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft isn't available to law enforcement, McQuiston said, either due to scarcity of resources or poor weather. The right drone would be able to fill that gap, he said. Some drones are outfitted with thermal vision or night vision, he said, which could be useful at night.

Sgt. Dave Timm of the Baxter Police Department has been flying drones recreationally for about two years. He quickly saw how a drone could be used for public safety and started researching it. He found fire departments and law enforcement agencies, mostly in the southern U.S., have started using drones. Timm then showed Baxter Police Chief Jim Exsted his drone, to introduce him to how one could, and couldn't be, used locally.

"We're not going to use it for traffic enforcement, we're not going to use it for random surveillance or patrol," Timm said. "We're not going to be flying over neighborhoods to see if someone built a shed without a permit."

Some fire departments use drones to observe hot spots or jumping flames at a fire, Timm said, which helps firefighters focus their attention on certain spots. Drones could improve public safety by finding missing persons faster, he said, or by helping firefighters fight fires better.

Locally, the Brainerd Police Department, Baxter Police Department, Brainerd Fire Department and Crow Wing County Sheriff's Office have discussed getting a drone which would be shared among the agencies, McQuiston said. A drone could be used for search and rescues or disaster responses, he said.

"By ourselves, none of us seem to have enough resources," McQuiston said. "But collectively, together, the shared resources, then we can form bigger teams that can do more."

The multi-agency drone team would determine which situations meet the criteria required to use the drone, McQuiston said. For disaster responses, a drone would help get a wider view of the damage and help prioritize response, he said.

According to an April 2017 study from the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, at least 347 state and local police, sheriff, fire and emergency units in the U.S. have acquired drones. The study reported eight county sheriff's offices and one fire department in Minnesota have acquired drones.


Privacy concerns

Privacy is a big concern for law enforcement uses of drones, McQuiston said. Any local law enforcement policy regarding drone use has to follow privacy laws, he said, along with any rules or regulations.

"There's going to be people concerned about (privacy)," McQuiston said. "To be mindful of that I think is really paramount to how successful we would be in getting a program going."

A local law enforcement drone use policy could rely on existing drone policies for law enforcement agencies in the state. A local policy would also have to comply with Federal Aviation Administration regulations, Timm said.

"From our perspective, privacy is a huge concern," Timm said. "We are aware of the potential concerns that people would have with privacy concerns."

To assuage privacy concerns, a local policy would be very specific about how or when a drone could be used, Timm said. A drone is a specific tool, he said, and would only be used for specific tasks.

"As law enforcement, we have to be respectful of people's rights, that's the law," Timm said. "Plus, we want to be a good steward of our community."

Amazing tech


Since Timm started flying drones, the commercial-grade drones, like the ones used for law enforcement, have improved dramatically, he said. Drones can fly for up to 30 minutes on a single battery charge, he said, and can fly in colder weather, snow or even light rain.

"They have infrared cameras for night searches," Timm said. "It's really cool technology."

A photography buff, Timm was first attracted to drones because of the possibility of using one for aerial videography. A friend had a drone, he said, and got him hooked, after showing him what a drone could do.

"Take pictures of the lake, get scenic photos and have fun with my family," Timm said.

Timm's first drone flight will ultimately stand out as his most memorable. His first taste of getting a bird's-eye view of his surroundings was something he won't soon forget. After severe storms last summer, Timm flew his drone over a relative's property, in order to get a look at the damage.

"Capturing those images of the severe storm damage was really powerful," Timm said. "Showing that to people kind of gave them a unique perspective of just how powerful the storms were."

McQuiston has yet to see a drone in action in a law enforcement setting, but has seen recreational, lower-quality drones before. He never thought he'd be considering how a drone could be used for law enforcement, he said.

"It's almost that Star Wars technology," McQuiston said.


How it works

Most drones are manually flown by a pilot, Timm said, but some can be programmed to fly without a pilot's input. Timm's DJI Phantom Professional drone is controlled by a white, sleek controller with two joysticks. There's a place to mount his smartphone, which serves as his dashboard. His smartphone provides a live video feed of what the drone is seeing, as well as relevant information like speed, altitude, temperature, battery level and more.

"It's amazing technology," Timm said. "The first time I got it and I was flying one, I was just blown away by the capabilities of it."

A drone isn't incredibly difficult to fly, Timm said, but there is a learning curve. Pilots need to become comfortable with the controls, he said, and remain aware of their surroundings when they fly.

The FAA drone registration process for a government entity is much more thorough than the process for a recreational pilot, Timm said. For a hobbyist, there's a recommended online safety course from the FAA, he said, as well as some drone registration requirements.

"For a private person to fly recreationally as a hobby, it's pretty open," Timm said. "There's limited training, it's quite simple."

Spenser Bickett
Spenser Bickett

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