A third operational base for Crow Wing County’s drone fleet may soon come to fruition thanks to a Community Impact grant awarded by Sourcewell.

Sheriff Scott Goddard shared the news with county commissioners June 22, noting the additional funding will likely be used to support the addition of a Crosby-Ironton drone team. Currently, the 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.

During a February meeting, Goddard said adding the location was on the wish list, allowing for more flexibility and faster response times in the region for calls during which a drone might be useful. The cost of the larger, more advanced drones is significant, however, running more than $30,000 each. These drones are equipped with highly specialized cameras that can pick up footage from miles away and capture heat imagery at night. With a new funding source, expanding the fleet is now within reach.

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

In its application, the sheriff’s office requested $88,000 to purchase two drones — a larger one and a smaller one — along with performance enhancement software and a tethering system.

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The software allows for automatic flight logging, remote livestreaming and management of the program, including the training records and flight times of drone pilots. The tethering system essentially means the drone can fly for an unlimited amount of time when connected to a power source. The standard cable length for the system is 164 feet, removing the requirement for changing batteries in situations when the drone will remain within that range.

Purchases of the equipment and software are expected next month, with training occurring in September and an overall goal of an operational third base by October.

An $80,000 grant in 2017 from Sourcewell, known at the time as the National Joint Powers Alliance, was the original funding source for the program launched later that year. The team consists of 16 certified drone pilots from police and fire departments across the county.

“Pilots have seen what a game changer the drones have been for Crow Wing County and Region 5,” the application stated. “ … With additional aircraft, the team will be able to deploy an aircraft in the air quicker and start providing crucial incident information to all responding agencies.”

Previously known as Innovation Funding, the Community Impact program “promotes teamwork on projects and initiatives that might not otherwise get off the ground,” Sourcewell states on its website. Local governments and 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations in the five-county region — Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison, Todd and Wadena counties — are eligible for the program.

Projects go through a multistep application process and projects are selected based on whether they’ll have a widespread, lasting impact. Officials from Sourcewell’s regional voting membership entities select awarded projects at the annual review day and final approval is given by the organization’s board of directors.

A drone hovers over a lake while transporting an object in this photo included in Crow Wing County's presentation seeking grant funding to expand its drone program. Photo / Crow Wing County
A drone hovers over a lake while transporting an object in this photo included in Crow Wing County's presentation seeking grant funding to expand its drone program. Photo / Crow Wing County


Use of drones

Public safety agencies in the county deployed the drones more than 100 times in the three years the program’s been underway for both incidents and training events, according to the application. This includes more than 30 incidents during 2020, Goddard and Emergency Management Director John Bowen reported in late January. Last year’s 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.

There are limits on how law enforcement 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.

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.

“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.”

The sheriff’s office compiled data on 2020’s drone use as part of new reporting requirements to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension passed by the Legislature last year. State data on drone use without a warrant by law enforcement agencies was posted June 15 at https://bit.ly/2LltKJv.

According to the report, 93 agencies in the state used drones without a search warrant 1,171 times. Crow Wing County recorded 30 such uses, including 18 times “during or in the aftermath of an emergency situation that involves the risk of death or bodily harm to a person,” 10 times “to collect information from a public area if there is reasonable suspicion of criminal activity,” once to prevent loss of life in natural or manmade disasters and once to collect information for crash reconstruction purposes.

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