CCSO Drone Unit Takes Flight

Sgt. Jim Baker of the CCSO Bureau of Technical Services pilots a drone while capturing video of the Traffic Unit on a recent day. CCSO is one of a growing number of law enforcement agencies in the nation using drones as a public safety tool. Photo by Efrain Hernandez/CCSO

A new Collier County sheriff’s office aerial unit took to the skies in the form of five flying robots.

The Drone Unit is made up of members from throughout the Sheriff’s Office, who conduct drone operations as needed in addition to their assigned duties. Lt. Scott Barnett of the agency’s Bureau of Technical Services oversees the new unit under the supervision of Sgt. Jim Baker, who developed the agency’s program.

“We work closely with our Aviation Unit to assure the best cooperative effort to attain the goals of the Sheriff’s Office,” Lt. Barnett said. “By having non-pilots fly the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) we can offer a fast deployment and allow the pilots to be free to operate our manned aircraft.”

Each drone weighs less than five pounds and is equipped with a video camera, said Lt. Barnett. They are mostly being used for tactical support, searches for missing children and event documentation, he said.

Drones are more cost effective than manned aircraft such as helicopters and can be used in dangerous environments and situations without putting deputies in harm’s way.

“The use of UAVs will enhance the sheriff’s office’s ability to effectively serve our citizens and is an opportunity for us to use technology as a tool to keep the community and deputies safe,” Sheriff Kevin Rambosk said.

The drones were used throughout Collier County after Hurricane Irma to document the devastation, road cblockages and safety issues. They’ve also been used to assist local fire departments in performing checks of roofs and eaves and to video firefighting efforts.

“Our drones have on several occasions offered unobtrusive surveillance of barricaded individuals, offering the SWAT team real-time data without endangering officers,” Lt. Barnett said. “We have used the drone for bomb threats on one occasion at a local high school.”

Drone usage by public safety agencies is on the rise.

At least 347 state and local police, sheriff, fire and emergency units in the U.S. are using drones as a public safety tool, including 11 in Florida, according to a 2017report by the Center for the Study of the Drone, a research institute based out of Bard College in New York. More drone acquisitions by public safety agencies took place in2016 than in previous years, with local law enforcement departments leading the way, the study said.

All CCSO drone pilots are licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration and have completed an extensive training program designed by CCSO to assure they are proficient in operating a UAV and know state law and agency policy.

CCSO began using drones in 2015. The drone program was originally conceived as a way to supplement documentation of crime scenes. From there, research into federal and state requirements and available equipment brought the agency to its current position.

Led by Sgt. Baker, CCSO developed the first policy of drone operation for an accredited law enforcement agency in Florida. The training program adopted by CCSO was one of the first developed to meet new FAA regulations and because of this, the agency now has multiple FAA certified drone pilots. CCSO also became one of the first agencies to receive FAA waivers for night flight and operational flight near airports.

Sgt. Baker also has been actively involved with assisting other law enforcement agencies with developing drone programs and policies. The Lee County Sheriff’s Office has adopted CCSO’s training program. Other counties, including Highlands and Putnam, have reached out for direction in starting drone programs.

Sheriff Rambosk recently honored Sgt. Baker with a Command Recognition for his efforts to bring a drone program to the agency.

“Sgt. Baker has been instrumental and tenacious in his efforts to develop a drone program for the Collier County sheriff’s office,” Sheriff Rambosk said. “His efforts have put him and our agency at the forefront of this new technology with recognition both state and national.”

Plans are on the horizon to expand the agency’s drone program, Lt. Barnett said. Plans include having a drone in each of the Sheriff’s six patrol districts. They also include acquiring several drones with heat-sensing thermal imaging cameras to assist in searches for lost individuals at night and magnification capabilities to assist with tactical incidents.

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