LEESBURG — The Lake County Sheriff’s Office mini-air force may be flying over your neighbor right now.
But don’t worry: The 14 helicopter drones are not armed with missiles or bombs.
“We use them for intelligence gathering and defensive assets,” said LCSO Sgt. Chris Stevens. “They give incident commanders real-time information.”
More importantly, they are life-savers — literally.
How the drones are used
One of the most dramatic uses of the remote-controlled devices occurred in the case of an armed man in the woods threatening suicide.
Stevens, who’s in charge of the unit that was activated last August, used the infrared camera to spot the man in a tree. He could see the man’s car parked nearby. When he heard the drone, he gave up and walked toward deputies to surrender.
“I was going to start shooting,” the man said. His plan was to engage in what police call “suicide by cop.”
“Using a drone is cheating,” he told the deputies.
If there was any doubt about their usefulness, it ended that day.
The drones have also rescued people lost in the woods, hovering over them until they can lead them to safety, Stevens said.
Stevens has also aided firefighters by flying over a large area and pointing out the hot spots.
The military has used big drones for some time, most famously in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they are armed and can blast terrorists before they know what hit them.
Pilots and weapons specialists can be based at bases as far away as Las Vegas.
Ground troops also use handheld drone planes to see what’s over the next ridge.
18 pilots fly the drones
Stevens has 18 pilots. Most are road patrol deputies and carry their planes with them.
It has cut down on the use of the sheriff’s manned helicopter.
For one thing, the drones are quicker.
The full-sized helicopter is stationed at Leesburg International Airport. Take-off might be restricted by bad weather there, for example, while deputies are dealing with a situation with better weather in the south end of the county.
A drone can get up in the air in a matter of seconds, no matter if there’s rain on the other side of the county.
Pilots are trained and certified by the Federal Aviation Authority.
“We’re allowed to fly at 400 feet,” Stevens said.
They can get permission from the FAA to exceed the normal conditions if necessary.
The drones aren’t cheap
The drones certainly aren’t toys — and they aren’t priced like toys either.
Thirteen of the sheriff’s drones are what he describes as mid-sized and cost $4,500 each. There is also one “mini,” at a cost of $15,000.
The most expensive one has a price tag of $30,000.
Two of the aircraft have cages over their propellers so they can fly inside homes, past curtains and other obstacles.
The sheriff’s department once used these drones, and a robot to aid U.S. Marshals in a standoff.
The suspect was able to flip the robot over, locked one out by closing an interior door, and threw a shoe at the other drone, but it righted itself and continued its mission, Stevens said.
Another man, however, recently shot down LCSO’s most expensive drone — the $30,000 beauty, equipped with infrared and other high-tech tools.
The incident, on July 11, occurred when deputies were investigating a possible burglary at a warehouse and greenhouse complex in Eustis.
After checking with the owner, to make sure no employees were on site, Stevens unleashed the aircraft.
Stevens had the craft hovering over a rooftop when he heard the first shot.
“It sounded like a firecracker, but a .22-caliber rifle can sound like that. When I heard the second shot, someone yelled, ‘Someone’s shooting at your drone!’”
The drone made a sharp turn, fell, hung up on the gutter of a building and burst into flames.
“It fell on a metal building, so it didn’t cause any damage. I was thankful for that,” Stevens said, but he had just lost his best drone.
Wendell D. Goney, 50, of Britt Road, Eustis, told deputies he shot the drone because “he thought it was trying to harass him,” according to an arrest affidavit.
“That guy … has a history of believing in government conspiracies,” Stevens said. “He was pointing at a star and saying it was a [spy] satellite.”
Goney was charged with criminal mischief, improper exhibition of a firearm, and being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm.
The sheriff’s office has filed paperwork saying it is seeking restitution for the downed drone.