Unmanned aerial vehicles are taking off in many industries, but it may be surprising to learn that Crow Wing County Emergency Management is at the forefront of Minnesota's expanding emergency use of drones.
Thanks to an $80,000 grant from the National Joint Powers Alliance (now called Sourcewell), Crow Wing County was able to start a drone response program in late 2017/early 2018. The grant paid not only to buy two foldable Mavic Pro drones, but also two large Matrice 210 drones with two cameras, one with zoom and one with infrared capabilities.
"The concept kind of came about a couple years ago, about the capabilities a drone could provide for public safety in Crow Wing County," said John Bowen, Crow Wing County emergency management director.
Drones most recently were used at the scene of a Crosslake fire last week, as well as at the Crosslake St. Patrick's Day Parade in March.
Sheriff's Department Capt. Scott Goddard said the department had included a drone in its list of "wants" on the budget for several years, especially following the 2015 storms that swept the area, but NJPA (Sourcewell) made it possible to make the leap sooner. It helped that several emergency response groups saw the merits in a drone program.
Funding also paid to train 12 cross departmental pilots from the sheriff's department, local police departments, fire departments and county jail.
"As a resource, we looked at who and how to build a team of pilots," Goddard said. "If we are busy with law enforcement we might not have additional personnel to help, where fire might. Then the same thing. Say fire is working a wildfire, or a huge structure. We might have extra personnel that can operate the drone. It's a good, even split with the capabilities and where we can draw personnel from."
The goal was to ensure that a trained pilot would be available, no matter what department was present. To that same end, not only can you find one of each drone in Brainerd, but also in Crosslake. By staging in two different places, emergency management hopes that when they are needed, they can be deployed to virtually anywhere in the county within a half hour.
Overall, the drones offer the county services provided in the past by fixed wing aircraft and helicopters from the State Patrol or Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The difference is that sometimes those aircraft were arriving from the metro, or farther away, not only increasing the amount of time the county had to wait for emergency response, but also reducing the amount of time traditional aircraft could spend on the scene of an emergency before having to refuel.
"There have been numerous instances where we've asked in the past for a helicopter or State Patrol and they come out of the metro," Goddard said. "When they arrive they often can only help us 15-20 minutes before they go get fuel and then start again."
With a drone, however, it is as simple as landing, inserting a new battery and taking off again. That means less wait time, and more time in the air. There's a bonus of less cost, given that manned aircraft can cost hundreds of dollars an hour to operate, whereas the only cost for operating the drone is in the electricity used to charge the batteries.
Given that in some situations a drone with heat camera can replace several emergency searchers, this piece of technology has clear advantages.
"The search capabilities, it's incredible," Goddard said. "If we have a lost child, overdue hunter, overdue boater maybe in the middle of the night, we can quickly scan a huge area."
Emergency management is continuing to think of ways to use the drones. So far those uses include monitoring events like the Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza on Gull Lake in January and the Crosslake St. Patrick's Day Parade in March; remotely monitoring conditions in dangerous environments; reconstructing accident scenes; finding missing people with the infrared camera; monitoring spread of wildfires; and monitoring the location of a fire and roof integrity inside of a building using infrared cameras. The larger drones can assist in saving drowning victims.
"We end up with two times a year where it's difficult for emergency personnel to get out on the lakes," Goddard said. "When ice is first forming and when ice is going out. With bigger drones, we can actually fly out with the drone with an attached and throwable rope and we can deliver it with precision to the person's hand."
Though there are no current plans to expand and buy more drones in the works, Bowen said he can imagine a time where law enforcement officers all have portable drones that they can bring to accident scenes at any time.
"Will that happen someday?" Goddard added. "Absolutely. I can see with crash reconstruction the availability of having that resource. I'm sure there will be a time law enforcement and fire personnel might have something like a team deployed on any scene."
In addition, deployment of the drones to other counties is as easy as deploying other emergency services like police or fire via a mutual aid request, meaning Crow Wing County's gain is also a gain for Cass County and other surrounding counties.
"Whenever we are asked we try to help where we can," Goddard said. "It's not just a resource for us."
Crow Wing County researched the drone program by communicating with other counties that already had drones, but now Crow Wing County is one of a still small number of counties with access to UAVs. Before Crow Wing joined their ranks, the nearest counties with drones were St. Louis County, Ottertail County and Anoka County.
Each of the county pilots required what is called an FAA Part 107, or a remote pilot's license, which is required for any professional use of UAVs. In addition, the county developed its own best practices, which require each pilot to maintain an hour of flight time every month, with at least one hour using the larger Matrice drones every other month.
While operating, there are always at least two on the flight crew (three for the Matrice) - one as a pilot, one as a visual observer and one to operate the camera on the larger systems. The county is developing special training for carrying deployable cargo and programming flight patterns into the drone.
While they have a nighttime use waiver, the county pilots are also bound by the same laws as any other UAV pilot. They cannot fly out of line of sight and cannot fly over people or higher than 400 feet.