(TNS) - The Fredericksburg police and fire departments’ newest “recruits” are bright orange, weigh 3.5 pounds and can fly for 25 minutes without recharging their batteries.
More importantly, the two Autel X-Star Premium small unmanned aircraft systems, or sUAS as drones are officially known, are a less expensive alternative to airplanes for providing “eyes in the skies.”
Armed with still and video cameras, they’re expected to be a useful tool in everything from child abduction cases and the apprehension of violent criminals to assessing traffic accidents and the water level on the Rappahannock River.
They’ve already been used to get an overhead picture of Celebrate Virginia After Hours concert venue at 5030 Gordon W. Shelton Blvd. for planning purposes, and to help locate a missing person who was found on the Virginia Central Railway Trail near Idlewild.
“A drone allows you to cover a larger area than a search crew,” said Michael Jones, Fredericksburg’s deputy fire chief. “It’s already proven its worth.”
Drones are no longer seen as a novelty by law enforcement and public safety departments, according to the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College published in April. Its research has found that at least 347 state and local police, sheriff, fire and emergency units across the country have acquired drones in the past several years.
More acquisitions took place in 2016 than in the previous years combined.
In Virginia alone, Fredericksburg is the 11th locality to invest in sUAS for police and fire and rescue efforts—and the third in the region.
The Stafford County’s Sheriff’s Office created its sUAS program in 2015, and has used it while investigating crime scenes, as tactical cover for search warrants and most recently in the apprehension of two felons in two different incidents.
Caroline County started its program in May, and plans to use it for post-storm damage assessment, incident situation awareness, search and rescue and hazardous material response, among other activities.
Fredericksburg’s police and fire departments got interested in developing a program after attending a class hosted by the Stafford Sheriff’s Office on how the increasingly popular devices can be used effectively to help ensure public safety.
“We were intrigued and asked for more information,” Jones said.
As a result, Lt. Michael Presutto in the police department and Battalion Chief Brandon Bass in the fire department took a 40-hour training program offered by Piedmont Virginia Community College at the Public Safety Building in Stafford in February. Afterward, they passed the test to get their FAA Remote Pilot certification to pilot sUASs.
Presutto said that using a sUAS and learning about its capabilities was “eye opening.”
“It’s an amazing tool, not just for public safety but for everyone,” he said. “If you’re looking for something, it gives you a different vantage point from where you’re standing on the ground.”
The departments purchased the two Autel X-Star Premiums, which cost about $800 each and are advertised as “perfect for a new pilot” on manufacturer Autel Robotics’ website. They were paid for out of a Virginia Department of Emergency Management HAZMAT grant the fire department received.
Presutto said the goal is to use the sUASs for training purposes and eventually get more sophisticated models similar to the four that Stafford uses. Theirs have cameras that can zoom in and have infrared capabilities. This would let a camera help search the foliage along the Rappahannock River, for example, something the Autel unit can’t do.
Presutto said that he had one of the city’s sUASs in his truck when a roofer went missing in Idlewild recently. He tried using it to find him, but the tree canopy was too thick. The roofer was found by someone else before Stafford could get there to help.
The Code of Virginia prevents state or local agencies from using a drone without a search warrant, except in the cases of Amber, Senior or Blue (for missing policemen) alerts, or for the purposes of traffic, damage, flood or wildfire assessment.
“We’re not looking to be the drone police,” Presutto said. “If someone says, ‘I think there’s a stolen boat in someone’s backyard. Can you put a drone up for that?’ We can’t do that. We’d need a search warrant.”
Fredericksburg’s sUASs are being used for training purposes now until City Council authorizes the departments to use them within the city. The vote is tentatively set for its Aug. 8 meeting.
If approved, the initial program will be funded by the fire department’s VDEM HAZMAT grant. Future costs for maintenance, replacement equipment, and training are expected to be covered by grants or be absorbed in the police and fire departments’ operating budgets.
The ultimate plan is to have enough certified pilots so a drone team is always available, and can help either department in emergencies.
“If we have an incident on the police side, I could call the fire department team so I’m taking my resources away from handling the incident,” Presutto said. “If there’s a structure fire, instead of pulling resources away from their manpower, our team could help.”
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