Sunday, January 7, 2018

Future ‘eye in the sky’ aids Randolph County Sheriff’s Office



ASHEBORO — It moves in silently, seeking out targets and completing complicated missions, collecting evidence, all for use by the Randolph County Sheriff’s Office. That is its job.

“It” is the Tecnam P92 Eaglet Light Sport, shared by three law enforcement agencies — in Randolph, Guilford and Alamance counties. This plane has been used by the three agencies for surveillance, drug interdiction, search and rescue, and crime scene investigation since 2009.

Detective Sgt. Ryan McClelland, who has been flying for 24 years, pilots the plane for Randolph County.

“We only use the plane in active investigations,” he said. “And we want the community to know that no tax dollars are paying for this plane and what it does. It is paid for entirely by using drug seizure funds.”

The plane has had some updates in recent years and an even bigger update is planned for early spring.

“We have had some plane panel updates,” McClelland said. “We now have a glass cockpit instead of the older panels. Everything is on one big screen and it is digital, allowing us to reduce our workload. We have the TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System), which allows us to see other planes around, behind and above us. This also minimizes our workload.”

The big news on the horizon for the plane is the installation of the FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) camera, a tool that McClelland said he used while serving in Iraq during 2011-12.




FLIR cameras are used to record in a variety of lights and thermal imaging. The wing mount location is ideal for surveillance and patrol and allows for a 360 degree view.

FLIR was established in 1978 for the development of high-performance, low-cost infrared (thermal) imaging systems for airborne applications. Thermal imaging systems detect the infrared energy (heat) that is emitted by all people, objects and materials. Infrared cameras allow the operator to see in total darkness, adverse weather and through such air pollutants as smoke and haze.

“It’s a little smaller than a bowling ball and will be mounted to the wing of the plane,” McClelland said. “Before, we would have to fly around in circles looking for the target. Now, using FLIR, we can lock it in on the target and it will keep an eye on the target, record, and send photos to those on the ground. It’s our eye on the sky — it keeps locked on the target and we can look at the screen and see exactly what it sees.


New Panel

“When we get it, we will be able to read a license plate number or maybe count the buttons on someone’s shirt from 3,000 feet in the air.”

The FLIR system also allows the pilot to photograph and document crime scenes to be used in court cases, and search for missing persons at night, using its infrared system to detect body heat from above.

“It’s not a cure-all, but allows us to do searches at night if we are involved in an active case,” McClelland said. “Because we didn’t have this capability before, we rarely did nighttime searches.”

The FLIR system was purchased at a cost of around $125,000 split between the three county agencies and utilizing the drug forfeiture seizure money program for law enforcement applications (which doesn’t involve public monies), McClelland said. The Department of Justice Asset Forfeiture Program encompasses the seizure and forfeiture of assets that represent the proceeds of — or were used to facilitate — federal crimes. Asset forfeiture has the power to disrupt or dismantle criminal organizations that would continue to function if only specific individuals are convicted and incarcerated.

“This is a tool to be used to serve the public,” he said. “For example, what if your 90-year-old mother is lost at night? We can use this system to help find her.”

McClelland said that since 2009, the plane has been used to photograph between 60-70 crime scenes or photograph crime scenes for court cases. It has also been used to search out marijuana fields, using the plane to spot the fields from high in the air.

“From the air, marijuana plants look like a potato plant and are a bright green color, so it’s easy to recognize,” McClelland said. “It’s usually in an opening in the woods where it can get plenty of sunlight, there is always trash laying arund the site, and it has to be near water. One time, I flew over a certain part of the county and saw two guys in a pickup truck. They looked up and saw me and I guess they thought I was just some guy out flying.

“It’s very easy to spot if you know what you are looking for. “


Old Panel


While McClelland can’t discuss various cases he has been involved in, he is very excited about this new technology for the plane and how it amplifies the plane’s uses in the county.

“This is another tool in the arsenal of law enforcement officers to help the people in this county and other counties,” he said in 2015. “Our first call was for a missing 5-year-old. He was found, and while we were not the ones to find him, we were in the air the whole time — they (searchers) could hear us flying over. We were there and were able at least to have someone in the air to help.

“This is not a big boy toy for us to take out joyriding. The airplane was through a Department of Justice grant program and it is free — I want everyone to understand that this plane, this ‘eye in the sky’ equipment, everything — it has cost the taxpayers nothing.”

Pros and cons of using the airplane?

McClelland said that, as far as he is concerned, there aren’t any.

“Cons and failures have not been prevalent,” he said. “Not once — it’s been a win-win for the sheriff’s Office. It has helped us solve cases and allows us to make our citizens happy by getting them their property back to them.”

Q&A about the FLIR System and Infrared Cameras

Q: How does an IR camera work?

A: An infrared camera is a non-contact device that detects infrared energy (heat) and converts it into an electronic signal, which is then processed to produce a thermal image on a video monitor and perform temperature calculations. Heat sensed by an infrared camera can be very precisely quantified, or measured, allowing observers to not only monitor thermal performance, but also identify and evaluate the relative severity of heat-related problems.

Q: What does the acronym FLIR stand for?

A: Forward Looking Infrared Radiometer.

Q: What does an FLIR do?

A: FLIR Systems is the world’s largest commercial company specializing in the design and production of thermal imaging cameras, components and imaging sensors.

Q: Can you see through walls with infrared?

A: Thermal imaging cameras, also called infrared cameras, detect the heat given off by an object or person, so the answer is no. These cameras only “see” heat as it radiates off of an object.

Q: What is an FLIR cloud?

A: FLIR Cloud is an easy-to-use, cloud-enabled service that provides remote viewing and control of multiple cameras from various locations via iOS, Android, PC or Mac devices. No complex router configuration necessary, the three-step setup is simple, making video monitoring easier than ever before.

Story and photo gallery ➤ http://www.courier-tribune.com

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