This article originally appeared on The News & Observer by Kathryn Trogdon.
As drones become more readily available, the technology has caught the eye of public safety officials who see them as a new tool to keep first responders and the public safe.
A growing interest among law enforcement and emergency medical providers in using unmanned aircraft systems has prompted an aviation technology group at N.C. State University to develop some best practices and spread the word about what is happening.
“So many agencies are buying the technology, so they want to know what else they need to do to get their program in place,” said Kyle Snyder, director of the NextGen Air Transportation Consortium at N.C. State. “The public needs to know that agencies are getting them and what they plan on doing with them.”
In January, the group hosted the first in a series of exercises sponsored by the N.C. Department of Transportation to help law enforcement and other agencies safely integrate drones into their toolbox. Drones can be used in several ways, including dealing with active shooters, documenting crime scenes, monitoring crowds and assessing damage caused by natural disasters.
The Moore County Sheriff’s Office bought its first drone in February and used it for the first time a few weeks ago to survey an area where officials have received a lot of complaints about drug activity.
“We were able to use it in order to watch the area and then move in on the suspects and ultimately had four arrests – all drug associated,” Chief Deputy Frank Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez said the drone will be particularly helpful when it comes to search-and-rescue missions. In the past few years, he said, Moore County authorities have used search dogs or helicopters to find several people, including two with Alzheimer’s disease, who walked away from their homes.
It typically takes a helicopter about an hour to arrive at a scene, and sometimes dogs have trouble based on weather conditions, Rodriguez said.
Drones are cheaper than manned aircraft. N.C. agencies have mostly been starting with the DJI Inspire, Snyder said, which costs around $5,000 – up to $10,000 once extra cameras and batteries are purchased.
But as technology and federal regulations continue to evolve, some challenges remain. Among them: hobbyists who fly the devices at the same time, hoping to get photographs or video footage of the damage caused by natural disasters.
Drones were operating during Hurricane Matthew recovery efforts last fall. N.C. Emergency Management used an unmanned aircraft in Cumberland County, and there were numerous reports of unauthorized drones in the area flown by hobbyists.
Such reports during disaster-response activities have become more common, Snyder said. In January, police in Pacifica, Calif., arrested a 55-year-old drone operator for impeding first responders at the scene of an emergency after the operator flew a drone near a Highway Patrol helicopter.
“That’s a real threat,” Snyder said. “That’s a threat to the airspace because nobody knows who is up there and who is doing what.”
NGAT’s exercise in January determined that agencies need to develop policies on how to handle hobbyists who could impede their work.
The public needs to be educated about such policies, so it’s important for law enforcement agencies to notify people through social media, television and radio before official drones go up in the air, Snyder said.
Regulations put in place by the Federal Aviation Administration also complicate large-scale operations like search and rescues. The FAA’s visual line-of-sight rule requires that a drone operator be able to see the device at all times.
Operators can apply for waivers for expanded operations, but only three companies in the country have waivers to fly beyond line of sight. This limitation isn’t expected to change any time soon, Snyder said, because the FAA first must develop a way to remotely identify and track drones.
In the meantime, the Moore County Sheriff’s Office already has begun exploring the capabilities of drones for public safety purposes even as the technology and regulations continue to develop. The agency is researching adding infrared and thermal cameras to allow for night operations.
“If we show up and it’s dark, we want that aircraft up in the air immediately,” Rodriguez said.