ANDERSON — When a Summitville teenager ran away from home recently, Madison County Emergency Management Agency officials brought in their latest tool to assist in the search.
Within minutes of arriving on the scene, the department's new unmanned aerial vehicle was in the air speeding across the countryside in search of the youth. Todd Harmeson, deputy director of EMA, was at the controls.
More commonly known as drones to the general public, experts say the new airborne technology is changing how emergency managers assess and respond to disasters, whether natural or man made.
Portable and affordable (Harmeson said Madison County's unit cost about $4,000), the aircraft can be launched quickly into dangerous situations or inaccessible locations and begin sending images back to responders on the ground immediately.
Although a ground search team found the Summitville teen in Delaware County before the drone, Harmeson is certain the unmanned aircraft will be a huge aid to Madison County's response to emergencies.
"We're one of the first local EMAs in the state to have this technology," he said.
Harmeson added that the DJI Inspire 1 is the same aerial vehicle operated by the Carmel Fire Department and Wayne Township Fire Department in Indianapolis.
"I'm proud here in Madison County we're flying that same equipment for the benefit of our public," he said.
Officials bought the device in early spring and spent several months learning to fly it and establish flight rules and checklists for pilots. And they've been making the rounds of weekend community festivals to show off their new aerial partner.
The Federal Aviation Administration sets the rules for flying drones for recreational, business and emergency response.
The goal is to make sure drones don't interfere with airspace around airports and sensitive government installations or with the flight operations of commercial, civilian and military aircraft.
Unmanned aerial vehicles, for example, can't fly higher than 400 feet, and pilots must have the device in sight at all times, Harmeson said.
In addition, the agency must keep detailed logs of every flight, including information about photographs that are taken.
So far, three pilots with the agency, including Harmeson, are licensed to fly.
In the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Maria, as well as the wildfires in northern California, drones have been deployed to assess damage and search for victims.
They have many advantages over helicopters, proponents say.
They can fly lower and are quieter, and their prop wash is less disruptive. In addition, drones can be equipped with sensitive listening devices and infrared sensitive cameras that detect the heat signatures of people and animals.
And there is cost. Helicopters cost about $2,500 an hour to fly, while drones cost a fraction of that amount.
Harmeson foresees using the emergency management's drone mostly for search and rescue and damage assessment from floods, winter storms and tornadoes.
But Madison County Sheriff Scott Mellinger said the device has value for law enforcement agencies as well.
In crash reconstruction, for example, "being able to visually see a scene along with measurements is invaluable," he said. From the air, everything from skid marks to a vehicle's path can be clearly seen.
Drones can also be useful in cases in which SWAT teams are deployed to determine all exits, entrances to a building, for example, or the movement and reactions of suspects who may not be visible from the ground.
In cases of missing persons or fleeing suspects, drones fitted with "heat sensors allow visuals even if a person is prone, give first responders the best information regarding how to best approach the person being sought," Mellinger said.
The Indiana Department of Homeland Security said in a statement that, "Generally, drones are able to deploy quicker and are less expensive options to get aerial views of an incident or situation. They can also be used in conditions that are not optimal or safe for aircraft with a pilot on board.
"From an emergency management standpoint, drones could be used for many different situations, such as a search for a missing person, to survey damage and to monitor developing conditions, such as rising flood waters," according to the statement. "Drones provide a good complement to many types of operations."
Uses of drones in emergency response
©2017 The Herald Bulletin (Anderson, Ind.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.