Drone Technology Being Introduced To Williams County

SMALL BUT MIGHTY … Bryan Assistant Fire Chief Doug Pool shows off the foundation of their drone program, the DJI Mavic Pro. (PHOTO BY TIMOTHY KAYS, STAFF)

(Story originally appeared July 11th, 2018)

By: Timothy Kays

“We’ve looked at things for over the past couple years, talked to other agencies and have done a little bit of planning on how we could fit it in,” said Williams County Sheriff, Steve Towns. What ‘it’ is, is a drone.

The Williams County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) has purchased a unit, as has the Bryan Fire Department, and both units will add multifaceted service capabilities to their respective agencies, as well as to other agencies throughout the county.

The WCSO has purchased a DJI Inspire 2 unit. Weighing in at 7.25 pounds, it features a magnesium aluminum composite shell and transforming design, with carbon fiber arms that support four propeller pylons. The quad-propeller system will produce two kilograms of thrust per rotor.

It will go from 0-50 miles per hour in five seconds, and tops out at 58 miles per hour. It has the ability to self-heat, allowing it to fly in low temperatures. It has an unobstructed control range of 4.3 miles, and carried a price tag of $4,900, which was about $800 less than if purchased through a discount retailer. Smart shopping research, tied in with smart timing, made for an optimal situation in acquiring the unit.

“There’s equipment funding that we get every year…it’s a use it or lose it thing,” Sheriff Towns said. “We were able to save enough of that at the end of last year to purchase the unit. We’ve done well with how we’ve used our resources and our revenue for our equipment over the last several years. We were able to purchase it at the end of the year, and use what funds that we had left to launch the program.”

How is this drone going to help the WCSO? There are multiple advantages, and more are conceived and developed as time goes on. “It’s one that, for us, is going to have a lot of versatility,” Sheriff Towns said, “…and then we’ll also help out a lot of other agencies. Specifically, we’re looking to hopefully do a lot with the engineer’s office, and then the other police departments in the county, and even the fire departments. Bryan’s working on their program, and the way that these things are set up, it’s nice to have multiple agencies to be able to pool your resources a little bit, and help each other out.

You need at least two people. You need a pilot and a visual observer to technically operate these types of aircraft. So while we’re putting things together, if we have to borrow a fireman to be a visual observer, or if we get to borrow a pilot from them, then I think we’ll be able to help each other out for quite a while.’

“It’ll take a couple years to get it well established, to get your pilots with enough experience to where we can start flying missions that have maybe a little bit more risk to them.” Currently, the WCSO has several people in training for pilot’s licensure. It’s a long process, but one that is mandated by the FAA.

“The nice thing about having the units this grade is it’s actually harder to crash,” Sheriff Towns said. “It’s got sensors and things, so by getting something that has the better technology; it’ll actually prevent us from having the types of incidents to where we’re going to be damaging the aircraft.”

“With the sensors on, it can’t fly into a wall. It can’t come down too fast, and it can’t fly up into things because there’s a sensor on the top, so it knows to not go up with there’s something above it. We tried to get something that had a little bit of failsafe properties to it, so that we’re not having any type of unpredictability with what it does when we have it up in the air. It be used a lot for searching in the fall with the cornfields and things, whether it’s a fugitive running away or lost a child.”

“We hope to mesh it with our life saver program, which we’re starting to put in place for the elderly. We think there’s an application that you can apply that type of tracking to the drone with the antenna system. We look to have a lot of versatility to it. We think we can use it for a set of eyes for officer safety when we’re going to do a search warrant.”

“If the drug unit has a house that they’re going to do a search warrant on, we could do a quick reconnaissance-type mission, to see what’s there. We could also monitor the thing from the air while it’s happening, because they have the ability to do what they call an observed point of interest. If we designate it to monitor this house, it will circle that house on its own automatically, as long as we click it. It will actually follow a person.”

“If you could pick out an individual running across the field or even in a crowded area…if you could pick out a person, you can lock on it and it will follow that person. Now it’s not 100%. You could maybe fool it, but if I have somebody walking around the square in Bryan, I want to click on that button, and it will follow them wherever they would go. It’s got the ability to do some things that would be hard for us.”

Sheriff Towns continued to talk up the potential applications for the new technology. “It can deliver to a standoff situation or negotiation,” he said. “It can pick up say, a cell phone or a radio like a walkie talkie, and deliver it to somebody and drop it. Now the dropping mechanism, you’d have to probably figure out a way to fit it, but I think they make them.”

“It’s got capabilities of some payload. It’s about eight pounds with the batteries in it, but it can pick up a little bit of weight, and it can fly for between 20 to 27 minutes on one charge of batteries…and we use two sets, so we could change them out and fly almost an hour.”

“If we got to that point where we’ve got more than an hour flight, we’re probably going to be calling some other agencies for help anyway. But in any case, we’ve got a command vehicle that we’ve put together which is going to have a lot of our equipment and be able to respond, whether it’s with this drone, whether it’s our boat, whether it’s some of the other things we’re putting together. We’d like to think that we’ve got a little bit of everything now.”

“We’ve got dogs for tracking on the ground. We’ve got the aerial, and then we’ve also got water covered with the dive team and the sonar equipment that was purchased quite a few years ago. We’ve actually got that really functional to where we can use our own boat that was donated a few years back.”

“We’re trying to be able to cover the gamut of what we may need to do for future events. The good thing too about these is you can get an aerial view with without much expense, and without putting a pilot at risk. You don’t have anybody up in the air.”

“We have several private pilots who are willing to volunteer to help us out sometimes, but getting them there…I’m not sure how much an hour it costs to fly a plane, but it’s not real cheap and then you also have the risk of the human pilot. With this, we’ve kind of eliminated all that, plus we’re hoping to be able to have it deployed within 30 minutes, where normally we’re looking at several hours to get air from whether it be Columbus for the State Patrol, or something else like that.”

The Bryan Fire Department (BFD) has also acquired a DJI drone, the Mavic Pro. “DJI is one of the top manufacturers for commercial and personal drones,” said Assistant Chief Doug Pool, who is also an FAA-licensed drone pilot. “They’ve put a lot of other people out of business, because they’re building some of the best stuff that’s out there.” The Mavic Pro, like the WCSO Inspire 2 unit, also has some serious giddy up and go potential.

The foldable quad-armed propellers will allow the 1.64-pound unit to max out at 40 miles per hour, without wind resistance. It will fly for 27 minutes at a consistent 15.5 miles per hour, without wind resistance. Like the Inspire 2, the Mavic Pro has an unobstructed control range of 4.3 miles, and uses a patented FlightAutonomy technology to sense obstacles up to 49 feet away, allowing the unit to brake to hover, or to bypass them entirely thereby reducing accidents.

This flying camera platform carries a triaxial gimbal-stabilized 12 megapixel camera with a 78.8 degree field of view and 4-K resolution. The standard Mavic Pro package costs around $800, but with the upgrades added by the BFD, the price comes in at a little under $1,500.

“This is going to give us eyes in the air, so that we can see from above and look down in things,” said Pool. “We don’t have any thermal imaging capabilities; this is a daylight camera. This is going to be a really good trainer for us to get guys used to flying missions and working with it. It’s going to give us the ability to get eyes up, to look down on an incident. We can search open areas with this, so that we don’t have to physically walk.”

“If somebody is out in a field, we can look down and there’s a reasonably good chance that see somebody in the field if they’re laying down, rather than trying to walk through tall grass. There’s some questions when you start getting into standing corn, because it’s a little bit more difficult. But the trials and errors I’ve done with my personal aircraft…you can see people in the corn if they’re moving; you’ve got a better chance of it.’

“The bigger the screen that you’re looking at, the easier it is to see. Fly slow, and you’ve got a chance to see him. Wide open areas or tall grass, low rolling hills, ditch banks, something we can fly over…we don’t have to walk out and look. We can search faster, and it’s going to make it safer for us because we’re not going out into that environment.”

That ‘environment’ may contain toxic surprises of its own, and Pool elaborated as to how the Mavic Pro will help ensure safety in those scenarios. “We’ve also got the ability with hazardous material incidents that we can get up, fly over and see what we’re getting into,” he said.

“We’ve had a number of rail incidents over the years. They’re always in the middle of the mile. You don’t have good access to them, and sometimes even with something like a field fire, trying to find out how to get back in there. Where are the road cuts? The ditches? Trying to keep an assessment of what’s going on.”

“It’s something we can put up and get that view so we can see where people are working. We can see where the access points are. Are there hazards they can’t see, because horizontally you can’t see. When you start looking down on something, it gives you that that overhead picture, and it’s better situational awareness.”

“Flight time on this is around 25 minutes with one battery. We’ve got three batteries, so essentially we can keep flying for an hour. We can recharge in the field, so we’ll get more than that. If we need to go across the field and it’s a spill, especially if it’s got color to where you can see it, you get above, you can see what’s going on.”

“If it’s in a waterway, you can see the sheen. We don’t have to physically walk those ditch banks to figure out where it’s at, so we can get ahead of it faster, put things in place, and then follow up by flying back over to see if we are getting what we need. Did anything get by us, without going to the next mile. The quality is really good coming off the cameras. That’s another big feature with DJI…the live feed. You can see a lot of detail.”

A goal for future detail and data gathering will obviously be the addition of thermal imaging. “Thermal imaging capabilities are increasing all the time,” Pool said. “That thermal imaging capability is where we really need to move to in the future, but I think once a lot of that depends on our training and our capabilities of what our pilots can do. 

Currently there are five in the department that have been through an initial training, and working on their license. I am a commercial license pilot already. I’ve had my certification about 11 months now.”

Right now, it’s the small things that will be tasked to the drone and pilot. “The scene evaluation, the overview, situational awareness, the ability to get up and see what’s going on…that’s what’s going to have a big impact for us,” Pool stated. “Then once we get the thermal imaging, it makes the search capability just unfold.”

“Right now, we’re taking a handheld thermal imaging camera, and trying to sweep across. You can see things, but you can’t see down. Put that same camera technology in the air, and it’s just as good. You can see if something’s coming through the roof.”

“We walk into situations that are changing all the time. Vehicle accidents. You get out onto a larger accident; are there people that were thrown out of the vehicles or walked away from the vehicles? When we have power lines down, we can’t even go in to look. Is there somebody out there? Again, we can put something like this up in the air. We can stay up; we don’t have to worry about the hazard, because we’re above the lines. Look down. Is there somebody still there? We can see well enough to see if there’s something going on.”

Drones have come a long way…from military use, to recreational, to use by emergency services personnel. The list of applications for their use will no doubt get longer as time goes by, and getting the programs started now is allowing the Williams County Sheriff’s Office and the Bryan Fire Department the opportunity to find and develop new service venues for this new technology that just five years ago, would have been only a dream. It pays to dream big.

Timothy can be reached at tim@thevillagereporter.com


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