SIDNEY — The citizens of Shelby County can thank the “bad guys” for the newest piece of technology at the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office.
A quadrocopter — better known as a drone — was purchased by Sheriff John Lenhart with funds received drug seizures and money from other illegal activities. It cost around $1,500.
“The bad guy’s money was used and helped us pay for it,” said Lenhart.
The addition of the drone, said Lenhart, will be used in conjunction with Project Lifesaver, which helps if a person with dementia wanders off and can’t be located.
“This gives us another dimension to that (search),” said Lenhart. “We’re using technology to our advantage, and that’s the way it should be.”
Lenhart said he had looked at drones a year or two ago and decided the cost was too high.
“It was less money today,” Lenhart said. “We’re a rural county rather than a metropolitan area so we’ll have a better use for it.
“Most folks know what their (drone) capabilities are,” he said. “For what we want, this was a practical and reasonable price. We could have dropped 10 grand on it very easily.”
Three detectives have been trained to operate the drone, which has been used several times since the department received it.
“We have to follow FFA rules,” said Sgt. Aaron Steinke. “We’re limited to 400 feet in height and can’t to be operated 5 miles of an airport.
“We generally don’t go over 200 feet for what we use it for,” he said.
In addition to the drone, the detectives use a controller to take the drone up and an iPad to see what the drone is seeing while it’s in the air. The drone has a WiFi piece which sends all the information to the iPad.
The iPad shows how many satellites the drone’s signal is bouncing off of. It also shows the speed, height and battery life of the drone.
“It has three batteries that have 20 minutes of life each,” said Steinke. “We also have a portable charger. If we lose contact with it, the drone will fly back and return home.
“The programming will also let us use a stabilizer on it or use a bounce like it’s real life.”
In addition to the initial training, the detectives have taken the drone out and run through maneuvers around the Sheriff’s Office.
“Our training is continuous,” said Steinke. “We’ll frequently fly it to stay proficient. We practice maneuvering it around the jail and around other obstacles.
“It’s a line of sight only drone,” he said.
Since its arrival at the department, the drone has been used several times. It was used recently when a caller reported that a para-glider might have gone down in a wooded area during a storm.
“That search would have needed overtime and 10-15 people out searching the woods,” said Steinke. “If we would have had to call in the Butler County Sheriff’s Office helicopter, we would have been waiting an hour for it.
“With the drone, we were able to tell within 10 to 15 minutes that the para-glider hadn’t gone down in the woods or was hanging in the trees.”
The drone was in the air 10 minutes after receiving the call. It took about 45 minutes to check the area.
“We did a grid search just to play it safe,” said Steinke. “If we would have had to call people in for the search, it might have taken close to an hour to get everyone there.”
The main purposes of the drone, said Steinke, is to help find missing children and elderly and fleeing felons. It won’t be used for searching for illegal drugs being grown. Those investigations will remain with BCI and their helicopter.
“The State Patrol had us use it when they had a fleeing felon,” said Steinke.
The person had run into the wooded area by Fair Haven. The drone was used to search the area.
“At Fairhaven, we did a grid search,” said Steinke. “The felon ran out of the parameter and an officer got him.”
It was also used when the Piqua Police was looking for a person who had fled the area into Lockington. The person was also apprehended.
“If we have a spill of hazardous materials, it’s safer than sending in a person,” said Steinke. “It won’t be used in investigative work.”
The drone, which records everything it sees to an iPad, will also be able to take photos from an accident scene or crime scene.
“We’ll be able to do search and rescue,” said Steinke. “Or it there’s an armed gunman, we can send it up and see where the person is.”
“We’ll also be able to spot people hiding around a van,” said detective Chris Brown. “Then we can send people out in response to that.”
The drone, Steinke said, has one camera, which only sees straight ahead. It won’t be used at night as it’s not equipped with a night camera. It’s also flown weather permitting.
“We have to fight the wind off for the most part,” said Steinke. “And if you let go of the controls, it will hover over the scene.”
The drone will usually be used at tree-top level, said Steinke.
“At that height, we’ll be able to pick out what we need to see,” said Steinke.
Brown, who has been with the department for 19 years, never thought he’d be operating a drone.
“When I first started, we’d have to go to a person’s house if we needed to use a phone,” said Brown. “Then we got cellphones. Now we have this.”
“Technology has come by leaps and bounds for us,” said Steinke.
Lenhart said the technology in the 911 center along with the drone is a salvation for the department.
“You can never have enough personnel in the county,” said Lenhart. “We are 14 people down from 2005-06. Our salvation has been technology such as the 911 system and now the drone.
“Anytime something works smarter, faster, quicker, it’s good for the county,” he said. “We’ve been leaning toward technology in a lot of areas here. This happens to be one of them.”
The bottom line, they agreed, is the safety of the county’s residents.
“If a small child wanders off, there’s nothing more important to quickly respond to find him before a worst case scenario happens,” said Steinke.
And with the drone, the search can begin quickly to bring the child home safely.