The Owensboro Police Department recently created a 10-member Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Team who were trained and certified to fly the department’s $2,300 drone inside city limits.
The drone, OPD officials say, has multiple applications. It could be used to search for a missing person or a suspect, it can document a crime or accident scene from the air and can stream video to the controller.
OPD purchased the drone last fall and officers began studying to receive a remote pilot certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration. The department is allowed by the FAA to fly inside the city although the FAA must be notified of when the drone is being put into use.
“We studied for that test for two or three months,” said Officer Andrew Boggess, OPD’s public information officer and a member of the team. “It’s far from an easy test.”
While the licenses weren’t required, “the city elected to have all of us take the test and get that certification,” he said.
Lt. Adam Johnston, a member of the team, said the drone is equipped with a 4K digital camera, a thermal imaging application and a speaker so OPD can relay messages from the drone to the ground.
“This will give us overhead photos we otherwise wouldn’t have access to,” Johnston said Wednesday while team members demonstrated the drone at the Owensboro Convention Center. Thermal imaging will be useful on searches, helping officers “locate missing or lost children,” Johnston said.
The drone can only be used over private property in situations where either the property owner has given permission or officers have obtained a search warrant from a judge.
“We are not going to be ‘Big Brother,’ ” Johnston said. “... If we are flying, there will be purpose and legality.
“I don’t want the community to think we are going to be out getting random surveillance from above,” Johnston said.
The department has used the drone a bit already, such to take images of the scene of a recent serious vehicle accident. Boggess said the drone can be flown at a maximum height of either 400 feet off the ground or 400 feet above a structure.
“You are starting to see a lot more agencies utilize” drones, Boggess said.
Reserve Officer Troy Couch, a team member who has flown the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 16’s drone for searches, said drones can help find a person who is missing and can also be used to keep officers abreast of hazards in their path.
“The team members (on the ground), you can give them an overwatch … and provide that extra protection,” Couch said. “It comes in pretty handy.”
The drone has 30 minutes of battery life and has multiple safeguards to prevent the device from colliding with a structure or the ground. The drone will also automatically land at its launch site if it begins running low on power, and will return to its launch point if it loses contact with the controller.
“It’s not impossible to crash, but there are a lot of features built-in,” Boggess said.
James Mayse, 270-691-7303, firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @JamesMayse