Since March, the Delaware Police Department has been equipped with a camera that can spot a person from a mile away – day or night – and identify the GPS coordinates where the person stands.
The camera is carried by a DJI Matrice 300 RTK radio-controlled drone, said officer Jordan Cornwell, program coordinator for the department’s drone team.
The Delaware police have four officers certified to operate the drone, which, Capt. Adam Moore said, is accompanied by a support vehicle and could be deployed rapidly when needed.
The Delaware County Sheriff’s Office and police in Hilliard, New Albany and Westerville are among other central Ohio agencies using such drones.
The departments say the flying vehicles can search areas far faster than personnel on foot, making the drones highly effective when searching for lost or missing persons – or fleeing suspects.
City police also have used their drone to assist the Delaware Fire Department.
“The use of the drone has been beneficial for the fire department in conducting fire investigations,” fire Chief John Donahue said. “This technology has allowed for a greater overhead view and recorded video of an incident scene that previously was not available. The drone also has thermal-imaging capabilities that allows the analysis of heat signatures to identify the spread of fire that is not visible.”
City police also put their drone in the air over large public gatherings, such as the annual Little Brown Jug harness race at the county fairgrounds, and the large crowd centered around South Henry Street during July 4 fireworks, Moore said.
“Our Fourth of July is a pretty big event,” he said.
At this year’s fireworks event, parents approached an officer to say their small child had run from their view, Moore said.
The drone quickly was moved to the scene where the child was last seen, and the youngster was found fairly quickly, he said.
“Officers on the ground have to make their way through the crowd. They’re either on foot or on bike,” Moore said. “It takes them a little bit of time to get there. But as that call was coming out, we’re able to get a quick picture of exactly what’s going on over there (with the drone). That’s just really beneficial.”
Like the Delaware police, the sheriff’s office has four staffers certified to operate the office’s drones, said Tracy Whited, the sheriff’s director of public relations.
Since they began flying the drone early this year, deputies have used it to search for missing persons, track and record crime evidence and improve situational awareness for the sheriff’s tactical unit, White said.
The Matrice 300, used by both Delaware police and the sheriff’s office, is much larger than a routine recreational drone, with a 30-inch wingspan and a weight of 15 to 17 pounds, depending on the equipment it carries, Cornwell said.
The robust craft is designed specifically for public safety and engineering tasks, he said.
“It’s not a drone for the average person,” he said. “It’s got a large camera on it and a thermal camera attached to it.”
The thermal camera records heat signatures and can spot a person in total darkness, Cornwell said. It’s part of a camera system than can zoom in at 200x magnification.
On Oct. 5 on city-owned land off Curve Road, Cornwell demonstrated the camera’s capability during a drone practice day for the city police and three other departments.
Images from the drone appear on a large screen carried by a support vehicle that’s on the scene when the drone flies. If the drone is buffeted by winds of up to 40 mph, the image on the screen remains motionless, thanks to the drone’s sophisticated gimbal system, Cornwell said.
The images also can be livestreamed, for example, to a mobile command center in the event of a critical situation, Moore said.
Such images would help police “make decisions based on live-time information, which speeds things up and gives them more accurate information,” Moore said.
Cornwell said all law-enforcement drone operators follow the same rules set by the Federal Aviation Administration for commercial drone operators. The operators must be certified, and records of all flights are reported to the FAA, he said.
The drones cannot fly higher than 400 feet, he said, and must stay in the operator’s line of sight. Other rules are designed to keep the drones out of clouds and away from manned aircraft. Delaware police officers were issued FAA waivers, which let them fly the drone at night, he said.
The Matrice 300 also is equipped with a flashing strobe that airplane pilots could see from 3 miles away, and it has sensors and an automated system that prevent the drone with colliding with trees or anything else, Cornwell said. The drone also can be equipped with a spotlight, he said.
White said the sheriff’s office’s Matrice 300 cost about $38,000. Cornwell said the camera alone on the city’s drone cost about $11,000.
Both the Delaware police and sheriff’s office also have a smaller drone. Cornwell said the city’s drone could be used to fly into buildings and spaces too small for the Matrice 300.