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Police employ drones for search-and-rescue, suspect pursuit

Officers are undergoing training on how to operate drones for a variety of purposes, including locating missing people, search-and-rescue and finding suspects

By Tony Holt
The News-Journal

DAYTONA BEACH SHORES, Fla — A remote-controlled aircraft took less than two hours to survey an entire city after a Category 3 storm ripped through town in October.

By comparison, someone with a handheld camera going up and down various high-rise elevators and stairs within the city limits of Daytona Beach Shores would’ve needed all day — and possibly several days — to get an idea of the full damage caused by Hurricane Matthew.

Once city leaders noticed the efficiency and effectiveness of a drone, they put their heads together to think of other ways that technology could benefit them. The list kept growing, so the decision to invest in it was easy to make, said Stephan Dembinsky, the director of public safety for Daytona Beach Shores.

“We all thought, ‘You know, this is a big thing. Why not use it for police use?’” Dembinsky said. “It’s cheaper than a search dog. It’s cheaper than a helicopter.”

As a result, Daytona Beach Shores is training eight of its police officers on how to operate a drone for a variety of purposes, including locating missing people, search-and-rescue and finding suspects.

The drone guru in the city’s police department is Sgt. Michael Uleski. He trains police officers and others across the country on how to operate drones. He is licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration and he has obtained an airspace waiver for the city.

Uleski recalled the reaction from city leaders when he showed them videos of roof damage from the storm.

“The speed in which I was able to do it is what really impressed them,” he said. “I did the entire city in about two hours.”

It was like having a heavy-duty digital single-lens reflex camera in the sky and steering it to the precise place you want it to go, said Uleski.

City Manager Michael Booker said the City Council is on board with the idea to purchase a drone, which would cost up to $4,000.

“I think we’re more poised to use this technology compared to other cities because of Sgt. Uleski,” said Booker, but he added there are significant restrictions associated with the use of drones.

“There are definitely privacy issues that have to be adhered to.”

Dembinsky said he is aware that civil libertarians are leery of any law enforcement agency using drones because there is a fine line between proper use and abuse.

“We won’t be looking into people’s windows or anything like that,” he said, referring to the fact that the city that is made up largely of condominium residents. State law restricts what law enforcement can do with drones. For instance, in most cases, evidence obtained by a drone video can only be used if it was collected after a warrant was issued.

The drone the city will buy can carry items no heavier than a few pounds, but Ulenski said that is just right for the device to carry a life preserver in the event someone is in the ocean and needs help. It is easy to fly a drone out into the water at 45 mph and drop a life vest onto the distressed swimmer so that person can remain afloat until a lifeguard can reach him or her.

Drones can also help with fire rescue. With a bird’s eye view, it can locate hot spots in a building and provide that intelligence to responding firefighters, said Uleski.

The maximum height limit allowed under the license obtained by Daytona Beach Shores is 400 feet above the operator, he said. Some drones have the capability of going as high as 19,000 feet. The restrictions are in place because the city is within the the airspace of the Daytona Beach International Airport.

Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood told the News-Journal that a deputy in his agency is licensed to fly drones. That deputy will undergo more training so that he may train other deputies on how to use it, the sheriff said.

Chief Mark Strobridge, a spokesman with the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, said drones could be used by deputies in the future, especially considering their cost-effectiveness versus a helicopter.

“As of today, we don’t have a solid plan but we’re looking at all options,” he said.

Strobridge also emphasized the importance of using the devices with residents’ rights to privacy firmly in mind.

“We have to do it right 100 percent of the time,” he said.


©2017 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla.