N.C. First Responders Learn About Drones

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N.C. First Responders Learn About Drones

News Jan 25, 2018

Gaston Gazette, Gastonia, N.C.

Jan. 24—Joe Ramey watched as, one after the other, stealthy high-flying drones hovered over a Dallas park.

Twelve years ago, Ramey was an assistant chief when Gaston County Police became the first North Carolina law enforcement agency to dispatch an unmanned flying aircraft to the sky. The ones flown as part of a Department of Transportation workshop Wednesday, though, bore little resemblance to the CyberBug, a fixed-wing heavy aircraft used sparingly before police retired it under a mountain of Federal Aviation Administration paperwork.

"It didn't have the camera capabilities that these have," said Ramey, now Gaston County's police chief. "It didn't have the ability to steady itself. It was more of a moving, fixed-wing drone. These can hover, hang out for a while. And the flight time was limited."

The purpose of the workshop was to showcase what these newfangled drones can do and how they can benefit an emergency response agency.

Police officers from dozens of departments across the state, along with firefighters and paramedics, were on hand as the unmanned aircraft were sent to role play a variety of situations.

They could be used to help locate an escaped inmate, map out a wreck scene, or monitor a smoky fire.

In one scenario, when presented with an unloaded pistol earlier in the morning, an NCDOT employee hid out in a gazebo until the drone could catch eyes on the "suspect."

When Gaston County unveiled its drone more than a decade ago, it also promised extensive crime scene photography and a bird's-eye view of hidden marijuana fields.

"We gotta look at drones as another tool in the toolbox," said Basil Yap, director of aviation with NCDOT. "We're improving efficiencies and we're improving safety."

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The event was limited to those working in the public safety field, but by now more than 10,000 drone users exist throughout the state. The pure popularity of the still-growing industry has caused the FAA to pull back its restrictions over the last few years, Yap said.

"The FAA has had a lot of pressure from public agencies to help allow these operations in more air space," he said. "Some of the issues that Gaston had previously can now be addressed under some new rules that were put in place even two years ago."

Drones today have the ability to assist firefighters in rescue missions through wildfires and floods and can provide police streaming video to command centers. Aid in the form of life jackets or other supplies can be dispensed from the aircrafts, as well.

Ramey wouldn't say whether he wants his department to acquire another one. If it did, asset forfeiture would likely be the way to pay for it, he said.

He did say the workshop at Dallas Park was helpful for agencies who are considering another asset to help them with their jobs.

"It's educational on how to operate, the parameters you can operate a drone in and the multiple uses that drones provide to public safety," he said. "It's a good operation to see that information."

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