By Matt Getts
ALBION — The Noble County Sheriff’s Department now has an eye-in-the-sky capability.
On Saturday, the department held its initial operator training with its newest technology — a remote controlled drone that allows for an aerial view over a wide area and can see in the dark.
Deputy Shafter Baker, who has his private pilot license for small aircraft, coordinated the training.
The completely outfitted drone purchased by the sheriff’s department cost approximately $13,000.
Like many law enforcement tools, the drone won’t see every day use, according to Sheriff Doug Harp. But the public will be glad there is one available should an emergency arise, such as a child lost in a field or forest.
“There are a lot of applications,” Harp said. “I think the possibilities are endless.”
According to Baker, the drone’s special video camera can take traditional video and still photographs, but it can also see infrared heat signatures. A person hiding in a wooded area, for example, will be visible to the drone because the person’s heat signature is different from his or her surroundings.
Harp said the department also will use the drone for locating people who have fled on foot and to photograph crime and accident scenes.
“It’s going to augment our law enforcement duties,” Baker said.
The drone can fly up to 50 mph and has a top ceiling of 400 feet. It can be sent three miles away, but the FAA requires line-of-sight operation from the ground.
The drone’s camera provides not only recorded video and pictures, but live-time streaming of what it sees directly onto an iPad.
Baker said the drone will dramatically reduce time spent searching an area. Previously, the department would spend many hours going over a field on foot.
Searching one square mile, Baker said, “would take you a day or more. With a drone, I can look over that entire area in an hour.”
Baker passed a written test and is licensed as a drone pilot through the Federal Aviation Administration.
The department has multiple batteries, and an in-the-field recharging system that would allow for almost continuous operation under most circumstances.
Until Baker has other officers trained and licensed to operate the drone, he will be on-call, much like a K-9 officer.
Baker had not had previous experience working with drones.
“To me, they were toys,” Baker said. “I now know otherwise. They are tools that can be used to great effect.”
The drone is a complicated piece of technology, but according to Baker, it is not difficult to operate.
“It is very simple,” he said.
There are buttons to push when initially launching the drone, a button to land it and even one that will call it back from a great distance to the area the operator is at.
State law requires a judge to sign a warrant or police to obtain written consent from a property owner to be used on private property.
“We’ll be very careful in when we use it and how we use it,” Harp said. “It’s a good tool.”