Cleveland County, Okla., Sheriff Unveils New Drone Program

The Cleveland County Sheriff's Office announced a new drone program to help with search and rescue cases. The devices are equipped with infrared cameras, which provide infrared radiation and night imaging.

Search and rescue drone
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(TNS) — The Cleveland County Sheriff's Office recently announced a new drone program and the use of three unmanned aerial systems to help in search and rescue efforts.

The UAS, or drones, are equipped with spotlights, a public address system and forward-looking infrared (thermographic) cameras, which provide infrared radiation and night imaging.

Sheriff Chris Amason said in a news release that the public address system will allow deputies to communicate with people on scene and help de-escalate potentially dangerous situations.

"The capability to locate someone and communicate in the field under adverse situations will be an asset when minutes count and lives are on the line," Amason said. "We carefully selected a group of deputies to operate the drones. They have been trained and licensed in the appropriate and legal use of these systems."

Currently, the sheriff's office has two deputies trained with Part 107 pilots licenses to operate the drones and two more in the process of getting their licenses through the Federal Aviation Administration.

Capt. Todd Bussell, operations patrol commander, said the drones were purchased for about $3,506 each from Unmanned Vehicle Technologies in February 2020. The purchase was figured into the department's Fiscal Year 2019-2020 budget.

However, the county's drone program wasn't implemented until April 9 this year. Bussell said the department had to place the drones in inventory, create a policy and practice that abided by local and federal laws and get some deputies trained and properly licensed, which created the gap between the purchase date and program implementation.

Bussell said the biggest pro to having the drones is officer safety, because drones can go into areas and terrains officers can't safely enter.

Additionally, the drones can show heat signatures and cover a large area in a few minutes, he said.

The biggest con, he said, is potential upgrades in the future as technology progresses.

Since the program's launch, Bussell said the drones have been used on three separate calls: Two search warrants and one suspect search. They have also been launched for training, video and demo testing.

Master Sergeant Ryan Graham with the operations division is a drone pilot and assistant coordinator of the program, and said the drones can only fly in general use airspace, which includes the majority of the county's unincorporated area.

He said weather can affect the drones' effectiveness. For example, drones don't work as well in high-wind conditions.

"With any new venture, it's always evolving, especially with new technologies," Graham said, adding that drone pilots have to take a test at an FAA-sponsored testing center in Oklahoma City.

Bussell said deputies at the scene of an incident can request use of a drone. The on-duty supervisor contacts Graham, who verifies that the airspace is correct and that the flight would meet policies and laws. Bussell is then given the final say on deployment.

"We can't launch the drone on any and every call. We can't fly the drone over people's property unless the reasons are made," Bussell said.

Exigent circumstances, he said, include natural disasters, search and rescue for missing juveniles and adults, searches for dangerous felons and similar situations.

Bussell said the department has received positive feedback from other agencies that are appreciative the office has equipment to assist them, as well as some residents, who shared that they think the drones are good tools that positively benefit the community.

"One of our core values is innovation, and bringing these drones in ... being able to use a tool to save time and effort, is something the sheriff's office strives to accomplish," Bussell said.

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