MANCHESTER — The Manchester Community Emergency Response Team’s drone program, one of the longest-running in the state, began in 2016 with the purchase of a couple of $49 toy drones from Time Machine Hobby.
Those cheap prototypes were “good for a 6-year-old,” Don Janelle, a deputy director at the Office of Emergency Management who introduced the idea of a drone program in Manchester, said. But Janelle said the toy drones also allowed him to practice flying and demonstrate the practical use of drone technology within public safety.
“I saw the potential for it,” Janelle said. “I had seen some other towns that had them. I said, ‘This is an untapped resource.’ So I went over to my boss, who is the fire chief, and I told him, ‘Can we try this for proof of concept?’”
Manchester’s drone program has transformed from a test flight with toys to a professional operation, with drone equipment and technology worth thousands of dollars. But the joy that Janelle gets from flying drones has never left.
When Manchester started its drone program, Janelle said there were 400 similar programs across the country, including two in the state. Five years later, the number of departments across the country with drone programs has soared to 400,000.
Janelle said the drone team has eight pilots who are certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. It also has four “birds,” as the drones are known, with the most expensive one a $15,000 Matrice that has heated batteries that allow it to fly in cold weather. Most drones can’t fly when the temperature is below freezing, Janelle said.
Drones can be used in many ways to help assist public safety, such as investigating a motor vehicle accident or conducting search and rescue missions. After Tropical Storm Henri in August, the team flew drones over Ambassador Drive to assess damage after the area flooded.
“These are all things we have the capability of doing,” Janelle said.
The drone program also plays an important role in assisting the town fire department. Janelle said that certain drones have infrared sight that can detect where the hottest flames are within a given area. Using its infrared ability, drones can tell firefighters exactly where to aim their hoses to ensure water is hitting the hottest parts of the fire.
“The incident commander can say, ‘Move your hose line over a little north,’” Janelle said. “And (firefighters) will move them over to where it’s getting more efficient use of applying the water.”
On Tuesday, Janelle invited a small number of local police officers, including Manchester Lt. Ryan Shea, to join him for a demonstration of the drone team’s equipment outside Fire Station 1. For about an hour, this group of passionate drone flyers discussed details about the program and saw drones in action.
Officer Zack Martin of the Farmington Police Department, who attended Tuesday’s gathering, called CERT’s drone program “really hi-tech” and useful.
“We always like to stay on top of the newest technology,” Martin said. “It’s helpful to see what they have and what other teams utilize. They have a great setup here.”
Shea even showed Janelle some of his personal drones that he flies as a hobby. Janelle’s boyish enthusiasm came out when Shea, wearing a headset and equipped with a large remote, launched a small black drone skyward.
“Listen to that thing!” Janelle said as Shea’s drone whizzed off the ground.
Drones are also popular outside of public safety and law enforcement. Ken Bernier, who works in the remote control department at Time Machine Hobby, said that drone sales this holiday season haven’t been as high as in years past, but they have been steady.
Hobby pilots have to follow certain FAA regulations for recreational flyers, such as keeping their drones within line of sight and below an elevation of 400 feet, to avoid putting manned aircraft in danger. Shea encouraged anyone who might receive a drone for Christmas to be responsible and follow all regulations.
Resident Alfredo Serrano Jr., who started flying drones as a hobby two years ago, said he gets a wave of excitement when flying drones.
“I feel like a big kid when I fly these drones,” Serrano said.
Serrano, who is a landscaper, said he uses his drone’s camera to see if gutters are clogged with leaves before climbing to clean them.
Five years ago, Janelle experimented with toy drones to make public safety more fun and efficient. Since that time, some residents and public safety officials have been doing the same.
“Utilizing tech to do things safer and more efficient, that’s why tech is there,” Shea said. “You can also have fun too.”
Austin Mirmina covers Manchester and Bolton.