With constant technological advancements, the tools at the disposal of local law enforcement continue to evolve — creating a changing landscape that has officers working with robots or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), like drones, on a regular basis.
Attendees at Bethel College Life Enrichment witnessed some of those changes first-hand Wednesday as sergeants Brandon Huntley (Harvey County Sheriff's Office) and Mike Yoder (Newton Police Department) led a presentation and demonstration on the use of drones in police work.
For local law enforcement, there is a small group of about four officers that works through the Harvey County Emergency Response Team (ERT) to deploy drones — the group has two aircraft currently — in times of need. Huntley and Yoder noted the instances in which a drone can be used are numerous. While they are typically used in missing person and man hunt scenarios, Yoder pointed out that the pilots (which include himself and Huntley) have trained for scenarios in which a drone may be used to check the contents of a car or to analyze a train carrying chemicals that has derailed — to make sure it is safe for emergency personnel to respond.
"The opportunities to use it are only as limited as your imagination," Yoder said.
On top of the drone and back-up law enforcement has access to currently, the ERT also has a number of attachments for the drone that can aid in various missions. Along with a multi-tiered camera and 360-degree motion controls, the group has a FLIR camera attachment that allows those using the drone access to thermal imagery of the area it is surveilling.
Start-up costs of the combined project between the sheriff's office and NPD were between $15,000 and $20,000, according to Huntley, when the drone program began in 2016. That acquisition has already paid for itself, though, as Huntley noted the drone was successfully deployed in a missing persons case within the past year.
"We actually found a lost person with it," Huntley said. "It has borne fruit so far."
Beneficial as the project has been, advancements keep happening, and Huntley admitted the departments will likely be looking to make upgrades to the drone program in the near future. While that may be the case, it was pointed out Harvey County has been ahead of the curve on the initiative.
Yoder and Huntley noted that Wichita recently started its own drone program, with Douglas, Riley and Shawnee counties following suit, but the two-year-old program in Harvey County was one of the first — and one of the only programs to already have a successful, life-saving mission.
Costs were a reason pointed to for why drone programs are not more prevalent in the state, and why they are currently being adopted by more larger metropolitan areas (with larger tax bases), though Yoder and Huntley noted Harvey County's drone unit is often called upon — and responds — for assistance with smaller agencies.
"We've probably deployed to other places to help them as much as we've deployed in Harvey County," Yoder said.
Though there are regulations for drone use, most notably pertaining to restrictions from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and what surveillance footage can be kept, the ERT and its unit try to get the most out of their drone. Weather — most notably fog and high winds — can also be a hindrance, but as Yoder pointed out the pilots train for a variety of situations.
Preparing for those numerous scenarios includes training with other officers routinely — including the local K-9 units — to better utilize all the tools at the departments' disposal. Additionally, the drone unit always deploys with multiple propellors and batteries for a similar reason.
Questions were asked by attendees about whether drones could be used for constant tracking in police chases. Generally, Yoder noted the drone unit is called in when a perimeter has already been set, which allows for the deployment to be as effective as possible.
"It can give us good intel, a good idea of what we're facing," Huntley said. "If we can see where a bad guy is located, we can tactically maneuver on that person."
"We use whatever tools we can use," Yoder said, "to get the job done as safely as possible."