Public safety agencies in Crow Wing County deployed drones for more than 30 incidents in 2020.

Calls included vehicles through ice, fires, missing children and a vulnerable adult, crash reconstructions, a duck hunter in need of rescue, a burglary in progress and someone fleeing in a stolen vehicle, Crow Wing County Sheriff Scott Goddard and Emergency Management Director John Bowen told county commissioners Jan. 26. The sheriff’s office compiled the data on the previous year’s drone use as part of new reporting requirements to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension passed by the Legislature last year.

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Goddard said he was surprised how often the four drones shared between agencies come in handy, and the technology allows them to improve public safety responses in a way they’ve never been able to before. He offered the example of using infrared technology to scan a lake for an overdue boater at night in 10 to 15 minutes.

“That’s capability that we have never had in the past. Even beyond I’d say what some helicopters have,” Goddard said.

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Sheriff Scott Goddard shares information about the drone program Jan. 26 during a Crow Wing County Board meeting. Screenshot / Chelsey Perkins
Sheriff Scott Goddard shares information about the drone program Jan. 26 during a Crow Wing County Board meeting. Screenshot / Chelsey Perkins

Beyond locating an overdue boater, two of the four drones are more advanced and can use a claw to carry life jackets to those stranded in the water. Although this has yet to be deployed in a real-life situation, Goddard said it could be useful in the early and late winter, when inevitably people fall through thin ice.

Bowen and Goddard pointed out some of the advantages of using drones to reconstruct vehicle crashes.

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“It’s helped a lot with real-time information,” Bowen said. “A lot of times we can get there while the scene is still active or they’re cleaning up the scene. So it’s a little quicker than waiting for a recon(struction) specialist say from MSP (Minnesota State Patrol) to come from a couple hours away. So it really speeds up the whole process.”

“If you actually come back and fly it at the level or the height of what a person would be driving that vehicle and then drive through that corner, you can see exactly what the driver was seeing or a very good impression of what the driver was seeing coming into that corner,” Goddard said. “And that has proved valuable.”

A screenshot from a video captured by one of Crow Wing County's drones shows a stranded duck hunter, rescued in October 2020 from Rice Lake in the Hesitation Wildlife Management Area. Screenshot / Chelsey Perkins
A screenshot from a video captured by one of Crow Wing County's drones shows a stranded duck hunter, rescued in October 2020 from Rice Lake in the Hesitation Wildlife Management Area. Screenshot / Chelsey Perkins

There are limits, however, to how these agencies can use drones. According to a summary of the state’s drone laws compiled by the League of Minnesota Cities, law enforcement is generally required to get a search warrant before using a drone except for specific scenarios. These scenarios include emergency situations involving risk of death or bodily harm, at a public event with a heightened safety risk or if there’s reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, crash reconstruction and other situations.

“The law prohibits deploying facial recognition or other biometric-matching technology on drones, unless authorized by a warrant,” the summary stated. “It also prohibits equipping drones with weapons or collecting data on public protests or demonstrations unless authorized by a warrant or under one of the search warrant exceptions.”

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Goddard said the laws are in place to ensure law enforcement agencies are accountable for how they’re using the tools. He said particularly when the drone program first got off the ground, people expressed a number of concerns about the potential for “Big Brother” uses, such as the sheriff’s office spying on private property.

Crow Wing County Emergency Management Director John Bowen speaks about how public safety agencies in Crow Wing County have used drones as part of emergency response Jan. 26 at a county board meeting. Screenshot / Chelsey Perkins
Crow Wing County Emergency Management Director John Bowen speaks about how public safety agencies in Crow Wing County have used drones as part of emergency response Jan. 26 at a county board meeting. Screenshot / Chelsey Perkins

“It’s kind of making sure that we’re correctly regulating those type of issues, because it’s all good work until someone does something wrong and then all of a sudden everyone is accountable for that,” Goddard said. “I think we’ve done a good job.”

Data collected by a drone is generally classified as private, with again, a number of exceptions including emergency situations or if it’s part of a criminal investigation. Drone data is required to be deleted within seven days of collection unless part of an active criminal case.

Currently, Crow Wing County has a northern drone team and a southern drone team, with one big and one small drone stationed at the Crosslake and Brainerd fire departments. Commissioner Doug Houge asked whether they’ve discussed adding other sites.

RELATED: Duck hunter rescued from Rice Lake after resident hears cries for help

“Given the time to some of the other locations, your falling through the ice example would seem to be one that might be beneficial to have more of these locations,” Houge said.

Goddard said in the first few years of the program, they wanted to grasp how big it could be while remaining manageable. With nearly three calls a month on average in 2020, he said a third station — such as the Crosby Fire Department — might offer more chances to use the drones. But, he said, the advanced ones are expensive at more than $30,000 each. If more funding sources become available in the future, Goddard said they might be able to add to the county fleet.

Commissioner Paul Koering asked why the sheriff’s office couldn’t just buy drones from Costco, where they range in price from $400 to $1,000.

RELATED: Crow Wing County Board: An eye in the sky

“Why does ours cost $30,000?” Koering asked. “We could buy 30 of these from Costco and if they fall and break, whatever, you can just throw it away and get another one. Why is this one so spendy?”

Commissioner Paul Koering asks a question during a county board meeting Jan. 26. Screenshot / Chelsey Perkins
Commissioner Paul Koering asks a question during a county board meeting Jan. 26. Screenshot / Chelsey Perkins

Goddard said the two smaller drones actually are sold at Costco. But the larger drones, equipped with highly specialized cameras that can pick up footage from miles away and capture heat imagery at night, naturally are more expensive.

The sheriff said he envisions drones becoming even more integrated into how public safety officials do their jobs in the future.

“I can see the day, truly, where we take off for a call and throughout the entire U.S. there’s drones everywhere, and there will be a little drone that will fly over and tell us what’s going on even before we get there,” Goddard said. “I could see that as someday being in the future of where we’re at. I mean, who thought we’d ever have computers in the cars 20, 30 years ago? So the technology is definitely a good benefit for us.”

Data collected by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension on drone use by law enforcement agencies will be posted by June 15 at https://bit.ly/2LltKJv.

Drone search warrant requirements

Under new Minnesota requirements, law enforcement agencies are generally required to obtain a search warrant before using a drone.

However, search warrants are not required when a drone is used:

  • During or in the aftermath of an emergency situation that involves the risk of death or bodily harm to a person.

  • Over a public event where there is heightened risk to the safety of participants or bystanders.

  • To counter the risk of a terrorist attack by a specific individual or organization.

  • To prevent the loss of life and property in natural or man-made disasters and to facilitate post-recovery efforts.

  • To conduct a threat assessment in anticipation of a specific event.

  • To collect information from a public area if there is a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

  • To collect information for crash-reconstruction purposes after a serious or deadly collision occurring on a public road.

  • Over a public area for officer training or public relations purposes.

  • For a non-law-enforcement purpose at the written request of a government entity. The government entity must specify the reason for the request and proposed period of use.

This last exception applies if another city department requests the use of a drone from the police department.

Source: League of Minnesota Cities.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey.