Thursday, June 19, 2014

Stillwater County buys copter to help in search and rescue, wildland fires

The Stillwater County Sheriff’s Office has landed a new $19,890 unmanned aerial system for use in search and rescue scenarios, wildland fires and floods and to scout rural residences before serving warrants.

“Some people envision military drones, but it’s not that,” said Sheriff Cliff Brophy.

The six-rotor copter was custom built by Billings-based HeliProz with off-the-shelf parts.

“It’s really set up now for search and rescue,” said Kurt Kreiger of HeliProz. “We did a couple of days of training, and it’s amazing what the (forward-looking infrared) can see.”

The infrared capability allows the device to pick up thermal images, such as humans, in the day or night.

“It’s a pretty cool system,” Kreiger said. “I can’t wait for it to save somebody. It will be really good for people to see the good side of these things.”

50-power zoom

The unmanned aerial system, or UAS, is also equipped with high-definition cameras, one of which can send back live video to one of the two operators. One camera has a 50-power zoom and, with stabilizers built in to the craft, the camera can send an incredibly still image considering the copter’s in-air movements.

The only drawback to the UAS is that the flight time is limited to about eight to 10 minutes, according to Undersheriff Chip Kem. But as he noted, “It’s a whole lot cheaper and simpler to send that up rather than finding a pilot.”

The county took delivery of the specialized copter several weeks ago. Three members of the department have been training on the remote-controlled device to learn how to fly it and monitor the live video. Prior to acquiring the device, the officers were learning to fly the copter on a HeliProz flight simulator.

“Obviously with a $20,000 piece of equipment, we don’t just set it out and say go ahead and play with it,” Brophy said.

COPS grant

The device was paid for through a $200,000 Community Oriented Policing Services grant that also funded the county’s purchase of a mobile command trailer equipped with special lighting and a generator ($70,000 to $80,000) that can be used by other agencies during floods or fires, a use-of-force training simulator ($45,950) and newer Tasers, including Taser shotguns that can reach 100 to 125 feet. The grant process took about two years and the equipment has been gathered over the last year and a half.

“We’re pretty excited,” Brophy said. “A small agency never dreams of having that type of technology.”

The use-of-force simulator has been opened to the Montana Highway Patrol, surrounding county and police officers and Fish Wildlife and Parks wardens to train on. The simulator has a variable computer-generated scenario where the suspect possesses different weapons or no weapons and will sometimes respond to voice commands.

“It’s as close as you can get to the real thing,” Kem said.

The officer’s weapon is equipped with a sensor that allows the computer program to record where a shot would hit and reaction time. One scenario even includes the use of a simulated flashlight in the dark.

Right now the simulator is set up in the basement of Columbus’ town hall.

Big copter

Kem said the UAS has not been used yet and can only be deployed when the wind is not blowing very hard. The device is about 2.5 feet in diameter and weighs 16.5 pounds, which Kreiger called a “pretty good-sized” UAS.

“Technically it’s only got about a mile range,” Kem said, because the batteries have to be changed so often.

An alarm can be set to go off when the battery is getting low, providing enough time for the operator to retrieve the copter and change the battery.

The use of smaller unmanned aerial systems has boomed recently, with everyone from real-estate agents to movie makers using the devices for aerial photography and even for farmers who want to scan fields to see where more fertilizer is needed on crops.

The Federal Aviation Administration has expedited its research of the crafts to try to establish rules to guide usage of the machines. Kreiger said updates were recently added to the crafts’ software that doesn’t allow them to fly within a mile of certain airports.

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