The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department is using a valuable new tool in its search for lost or missing persons: drones.
The department started using the unmanned aerial vehicles after more than a year of preparation and training.
Capt. Brian Wright said the department was seeing regular calls for lost or missing individuals that tied up an inordinate amount of manpower and resources. “The drones utilize less manpower, they are less expensive to use, they require less upkeep, and they provide faster response time than do helicopter or fixed wing resources,” he said.
The department currently has two drones: Autel and Icarus. Due to concerns for officers’ safety, Wright would not release the specifics of their capabilities, but they are geared primarily for search and rescue. The price tag for such devices runs from $3,000 to $25,000, but the drones typically pay for themselves by reducing the sheriff’s department’s expenses.
Earlier this year, the sheriff’s department called in one of the drones to track a man who fled a traffic stop rather than take a sobriety test. A short time later, the drone spotted him hiding behind a storage building near Merrimac Road.
A valuable benefit the drones provide is their ability to do flyovers, enabling them to be used instead of putting officers at risk during dangerous situations.
“We can search for missing individuals and/or bodies, take aerial photos at crime scenes, take aerial photos at serious vehicle crashes, take photos for home/business site security surveys and use them in active fugitive searches,” Capt. Wright said. Recently the sheriff’s department used the drones to locate some missing hikers in eastern Montgomery County.
The frequency with which drones are being used has increased in the last couple of years. Reports show that 167 police and fire departments bought drones in 2016, twice the number from 2015. The most current numbers available show drones being used by 910 state and local law enforcement agencies.
Drones have also been used by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection since 2005 to patrol the U.S./Mexican border.
Drones are particularly valuable for first responders. Obviously, they are faster than conventional vehicles and can reach a location in minutes after receiving an emergency request. They thus can aerially assess the situation before human responders arrive.
They are cost-effective. The conventional method of deploying a manned helicopter is expensive and time-consuming and may not even be suitable for situations that require an immediate response.
Drones offer the potential to save lives. They can be equipped with various attachments depending on the task; these payloads can be controlled by a single officer from a safe distance. This is especially valuable in life-threatening situations to engage a perpetrator from a safe distance without risk to the officer’s life.
Drones are also a potent public safety tool. They can cover a large area easily, and they can be equipped with thermal sensors. They, thus are effective in search and rescue operations.
Here in the New River Valley, each drone deployment requires authorization from either the sheriff or the chief deputy. They also require permitting by the Federal Aviation Administration. Only FAA certified/authorized and trained individuals can utilize them.
Wright said they have been extremely useful to the department. “We have seen an increase in requests for our Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) team to assist other agencies due to their short response time and availability,” the captain said.
According to Capt. Wright, the drones have become extremely important resources that provide many of the same capabilities of an aircraft without the expense and upkeep of an aircraft.
“They are tools that save manpower and help keep our officers safe,” he said.