Interest in using drones for public safety applications catching like wildfire throughout Lake County

Interest in using drones for public safety applications catching like wildfire throughout Lake County

03 June 2017

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USA – The last time they made headlines here, unmanned aerial systems — or drones — were just beginning to make their mark on the local public safety scene.

Thanks to Willoughby Fire Department Capt. Scott Mlakar, whose affinity for them provided a natural segue into their use in fire and rescue scenarios, police and fire agencies all over Lake County and beyond are taking notice — and getting trained how to use them right.

Since last August, the Federal Aviation Administration requires UAS pilots to go through training similar to what pilots of full-sized, manned aircraft go through to be able to operate them in a capacity other than as a hobbyist.

“It’s kind of funny,” Mlakar said in November. “Before Aug. 29, if I wanted to use my UAS to search for a missing person or drop a life jacket to a boater in distress on Lake Erie, I had to do it as a hobbyist.”

He explained that, in order to use the devices in that capacity, he would have had to apply for various exemptions to FAA regulations — an impractical and costly process.

But, ever since the Aug. 29, 2016 rules went into effect, it’s just a matter of taking a class, paying a fee and playing by the rules.

It’s those rules Mlakar has been teaching, among other things, to interested public safety personnel since November, when he started getting the program he’s since developed off the ground.

Since then, police, fire and other public safety entities around the county have signed personnel up to get their licenses.

But it’s not as simple as that.

Studying, learning and passing the test to be a drone pilot is one thing. But actually flying them is another.

“Over the last, probably, two months, a combination of police and fire departments have studied for — and most have taken — their remote-pilot FAA certification tests,” Mlakar said in an interview June 1 at Willoughby Fire Station No. 1 on Euclid Avenue. “So, now, they’re remote, commercial pilots allowed to fly (UAS) for public safety.”

He said the irony lies in the fact that many of them haven’t actually flown the drones the county has, and plans to use, for public safety applications.

The next step, he said, is to get these pilots familiar with the drones they’d be using in law enforcement and fire/rescue scenarios throughout the county.

He said he’s poised to begin classroom and practical training in about two weeks.

“My goal was to have people ready to fly by the first week in June, but we’re already a little past deadline for that to happen,” Mlakar said.

But that’s a good thing, considering the stakes at hand. It’s one thing to fly a $45 toy drone anyone can get through But the birds Mlakar and his associates are flying run about $2,000. And that’s not counting the gear they’re toting.

For example, the new forward looking infrared — or FLIR — camera the county just obtained runs about $6,000. Add that to the $2,000 the DJI Inspire drones the county just bought in March and you’re talking some serious aerial hardware.

Besides the cost, though, which is bank vaults cheaper than paying for a manned helicopter and its pilot, using drones for public safety work is much more efficient and practical.

Just ask Lake County Narcotics Agency Director David Frisone. He helped the county obtain these two newest drones via funds seized through drug-interdiction operations, just like the guys from “Miami Vice” did in the ’80s.

Although they’re far cries from Ferraris and cigarette boats, these drones are at the forefront of modern public safety and law enforcement technology. They can do so much to aid in the fight against crime and that’s something Frisone recognized as soon as Mlakar approached him about them.

“We’re going to see, I think, that Lake County is going to be on the cutting edge with these UAS systems,” Frisone said in a June 1 phone interview. “We’re developing some policies. We’re getting operators from both police and fire departments across the county. And it’s just going to be a tremendous tool. Their capabilities and uses are just enormous.”

But along with new technologies — especially those which may be used to observe activity from afar — come reservations, as Mlakar and Frisone both pointed out.

“Every time a new piece of technology comes out, especially something that can be used to photograph or take video, people tend to think it’s going to be used to spy on them,” Mlakar said, adding that this just simply isn’t the case. “The most important part of it is that you get the resource up and you rescue somebody or you’re able to keep people out of harm’s way during a rescue operation… They’re not going to be used in any way, shape or form, to spy on anyone.”

He said that, simply by their nature of operation, that would be next to impossible.

“If you understand how these things work, clearly, you can’t hide them. You can’t sneak around with them,” he said.

Frisone concurred, adding that any surveillance work UAS pilots would be doing, in terms of a criminal investigation, would only be allowed to happen after conferring with a prosecutor and obtaining a warrant.

And, even then, they’re not the most stealthy birds in fight. In fact, Mlakar likened their in-flight buzz to that of a “huge, (ticked) off mosquito.”

The bottom line, both Frisone and Mlakar agreed, is that the opportunities UAS craft provide to public safety agencies — whether in a law enforcement, rescue, firefighting or other capacity — to keep personnel out of harm’s way and literally provide an eye in the sky represent invaluable advantages for everyone from the departments using them to the people they will help.

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