“Eye in the sky”

Published 10:45 am Monday, August 1, 2016

WINDSOR – They could be watching you, but it’s just to keep you safe.

The Bertie County Sheriff’s Office has purchased a drone – a remotely guided unmanned aircraft that can navigate autonomously – and after some flight time they hope to put it in service, as needed, right away.

The unmanned drone’s cost is $1,399, and the price includes the Phantom 4 drone, the DJI 4K lens imaging camera, controller, battery, charger, extra propellers, and carrying case.

The drone can be used by law enforcement, emergency management, and local Highway Patrol without certification up to August 27. After that date the rules will be much stricter with operators having to take a knowledge exam for FAA 107 Certification before it can be used in public for commercial purposes.

“I’d like for all my deputies to learn how to fly one,” said Bertie Sheriff John Holley. “Several departments are already using them. Once, when a little girl was missing, a deputy came out, took the drone out of his trunk, went in the air and found her sleeping by a light pole. By the time it would take to a search crew to get there, she’d already been found.”

“They can help aid in search-and-rescue situations,” said Miles Kelly, Aerial Vehicle Systems Specialist with Go Unmanned of Raleigh, the aerial providers. “They can also detect marijuana crops; you can equip them with a thermal camera for fire fighting and structure fires. You can locate fires through windows without having to pretty much go up and down with a ladder each time.”

“The military uses this technology already, and it’s now made its way out to the civilian community,” said Go Unmanned Aviation Manager Rich Mankin. “There’s a bell-curve when it comes to the demand of commercial drones and we’re right at the bottom of it, because once these FAA regulations kick in everyone’s going to try to get a foothold on the industry.”

All three public service departments were on hand for a demonstration at the county’s new Law Enforcement Center located in Windsor on County Farm Road on Tuesday.

“For EMS we could do quick pass damage assessments with Emergency Management,” said Bertie Emergency Services Director Mitch Cooper. “With the infra-red technology it speeds up searches. Back during (Hurricane) Floyd, we could fly over areas and locate folks before you actually send in teams on boats to rescue people. It’ll definitely make our jobs easier.”

Several Bertie deputies, including Sgt. Matt Roebuck, along with David Hoggard and Brett King of the North Carolina Highway Patrol, took turns commanding the quad-copter. The X-like spindle has four rotator blades on each end and reaches a height of 400 feet on a little less than a half-hour of battery life. From that elevation, an operator is able to view on a monitor a distance of nearly three miles on a camera that rotates a full 360 degrees.

Scott Pearce, Bertie County Information Technology Director, and Network Administrator Joe Wilkes took turns at the controls, observing the flight’s camera with an attached I-Pad tablet. The remote control used to command the vehicle resembles a Nintendo game console, and the software programmed into the drone made it very easy to pilot.

“They come ready to fly,” Pearce said. “We didn’t have to do anything with it.”

Bertie County is not alone; one other law enforcement agencies in eastern North Carolina are also is using an aerial drone: the Lenoir County Sheriff’s Office in conjunction with that county’s emergency management, Kinston Police, and the city’s fire and rescue.

Lenoir County financed their drone through grants and drug forfeiture money; and nearby Lenoir Community College will be the first in the state to offer a degree program for drone pilots.

“We need something small, lightweight, that can be deployed easier than a manned helicopter,” added Mankin. “Instead of waiting over an hour to get a copter from Raleigh, it can now be done in 20 minutes.”

“This drone is the future, and they’re going to keep finding more and more applications for it,” said Lt. Kenny Perry with the Sheriff’s Office. “There are just so many applications it can be used for.”