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.
Its 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, its just a matter of taking a class, paying a fee and playing by the rules.
Its those rules Mlakar has been teaching, among other things, to interested public safety personnel since November, when he started getting the program hes 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 its 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, theyre remote, commercial pilots allowed to fly (UAS) for public safety.
He said the irony lies in the fact that many of them havent 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 theyd be using in law enforcement and fire/rescue scenarios throughout the county.
He said hes 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 were already a little past deadline for that to happen, Mlakar said.
But thats a good thing, considering the stakes at hand. Its one thing to fly a $45 toy drone anyone can get through Amazon.com. But the birds Mlakar and his associates are flying run about $2,000. And thats not counting the gear theyre 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 youre 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 theyre 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 thats something Frisone recognized as soon as Mlakar approached him about them.
Were 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. Were developing some policies. Were getting operators from both police and fire departments across the county. And its 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 its going to be used to spy on them, Mlakar said, adding that this just simply isnt the case. The most important part of it is that you get the resource up and you rescue somebody or youre able to keep people out of harms way during a rescue operation… Theyre 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 cant hide them. You cant 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, theyre 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 harms 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.