EYE ON SAFETY
Emergency personnel in Steele County will soon have an extra eye to aide in protecting the safety of area residents.
The Owatonna Police Department is in the process of launching a drone to assist officers and firefighters with search and rescue missions, as well as other emergency situations in which time is crucial.
“We’ll be able to launch the drone instead of using personnel,” said Captain Jeff Mundale of Owatonna Police. “It will allow us to search faster, cover more terrain and use less resources,” he said.
Situations that could warrant the use of a drone, Mundale said, are searches for missing persons or suicidal people, storm assessments, chemical spills and crash scenes.
Mundale pointed to a recent search effort in Byron where Rochester Police utilized a drone to successfully find a missing hunter partially submerged in a slough. The drone was launched right away because weather conditions prevented a helicopter to take to the skies.
The drone located the 84-year-old man using infrared technology. Authorities said without the drone, the man may not have survived.
One situation that comes to mind for Mundale where a drone could have been utilized in Steele County was in November 2016 when a train derailed in Ellendale, causing the entire community to evacuate. He said a drone could have been deployed to go up in the air and look for chemical leaks from the train cars.
In the case of a hazardous leak, the drone would be ideal to access the potential dangers to the public, Mundale said. “The drones would be accessing what the hazards are instead of putting personnel at risk,” he said, adding a drone would help determine what’s not safe.
Drones are unmanned aircrafts that can be navigated without a human pilot on board the aerial vehicle. They are navigated via control from the ground, using a GPS tracking system.
Police detective Joel Hunt has personal experience with drones and will be leading the effort to get the department’s drone launched in the coming weeks. A committee will be formed to determine guidelines and procedures for the drone’s operation within the city and greater Steele County. He said strict policies will be put in place, as well as a public hearing with the city council before the drone is implemented.
Hunt said the drone is not meant to lift off and go patrol.
Both Hunt and Mundale see significant benefits to having a drone available to emergency personnel. Among them are improved safety for first responders, improved response time for recovery efforts and improved efficiencies within city departments. “Overall, it will enhance the public’s safety,” Mundale said.
In addition to public safety, drones can also keep police officers safe. Hunt said a drone could be utilized in handling an “active deadly threat” involving an armed suspect. “The drone would give us intelligence to help us from a safe distance,” he said.
For example, a drone could help the SWAT team in a cornfield search of an armed suspect, Mundale noted. “This could be your search tool,” he said. “It could save an officer’s life. ”
Added Hunt: “If we find one missing person, it is priceless.”
Owatonna has purchased the “Cadillac package” of drones, according to Hunt. The city has invested about $20,000 into the unit, which will be equipped with two cameras.
Hunt said a big benefit of the unit is its distance. The drone has a range of 4 ½ miles in ideal conditions. The top speed will be 43 mph, and the unit will be able to be in the air for about 30 minutes. The batteries, which are self-heating, can be in cold weather down to zero.
The city is currently seeking a certificate of authorization from the FAA, which, like commercial aircraft, regulates drones. “Flights are logged,” Hunt said. “It’s like a commercial aircraft being monitored all the time.”
The drone will be available to police and fire at any time for day or night time operations.
Privacy will be a consideration of local officials in operating the drones, Hunt said. “We won’t be operating where we can’t see,” he said. “There will be no blanket canvassing just to see what we can see,” he added.
Police and fire won’t be the only agencies utilizing the drone. It has been purchased for all city departments in Owatonna, including park and recreation, engineering and grounds and facilities. All departments are splitting the cost.