[Editor’s Note: Six Duluth Police Department Officers have been trained to use the drones. A drone will be available on each of the four patrol shifts.]
The story of the missing Alzheimer’s patient from a few years ago stuck with Officer Ted Sadowski.
The man became confused and lost in the woods one winter a few years ago. The Duluth Police Department, where Sadowski works, had used all the resources they could to find the man.
It just wasn’t enough.
“He died in the forest,” Sadowski said.
That’s why Sadowski is so excited about the way Duluth PD plans to use its four new drones — he feels they could help the department save lives.
“It’ll be pretty effective,” he said.
Sadowski and six other officers trained to use the new drones Wednesday. He said it was a little like controlling an RC Monster truck as a kid, just a bit more high tech.
“The controller has an adapter for an iPad,” Sadowski said. “You’re pretty much looking at the iPad the whole time.”
One officer on each of the department’s four patrol shifts will use a drone and iPad each day. Sadowski and two other officers will act as substitute drone handlers if one of the original four is absent.
“So, pretty much every hour, there will be a drone available,” Sadowski said.
It’ll be like adding an extra pair of police eyes in the sky, he said. Each drone comes equipped with high-definition camera that can “see” at night. Officers will be allowed to fly their high-def cameras as high as 400 feet in the air.
Sadowski said that will make basic police patrol functions more effective, which could mean a safer city. For example, a police officer who hears the sound of a fight or somebody hurt inside an apartment complex will have an easier time checking on the occupants’ wellbeing.
“If you were on the first floor, we’d walk over to the window to look inside,” he said.
But things get a little trickier when the apartment is on the third floor. Officers can’t see in the windows and might waste time getting into the complex and knocking on the door when somebody inside needs medical attention.
That’s where a drone would come in.
“We’d use the drone to fly up there and look in the window,” Sadowski said.
These particular drones go beyond acting as elevated eyes for the officers controlling them, though. They also come equipped with forward looking infrared capabilities — meaning they can detect body heat.
“Trees and buildings look the same color (on the FLIR display),” Sadowski said. “Anything with heat stands out.”
Everyone’s body radiates heat, including the bodies of fleeing suspects. Sadowski said the drones can be programmed to lock on to a particular body of heat and to follow it without needing to be steered.
That means suspects will have a harder time ditching the police.
“If an officer lost a guy and he’s running, we can deploy this,” Sadowski said. “You can direct officers like, ‘He’s running toward this building’ or whatever.”
Sadowski said he doesn’t anticipate always using the drones’ FLIR capabilities to catch bad guys. It could also be used to help find missing people — like the Alzheimer’s patient who died in the Buford woods several years ago.
“It could have possibly saved that man’s life,” he said. “I’m not saying it would have for sure, but it’s definitely a big help.”
The Duluth Police Department isn’t the only department in Gwinnett using drones, but it is the only department using the drones as a patrol tool. Gwinnett County PD began using a drone in August.
But that machine focuses on traffic accidents.
“We have only used this equipment to assist in aerial photography of serious injury and fatality accidents,” said GCPD Cpl. Deon Washington. “Being able to utilize this tool for scene photography clears the scenes a lot faster.”
Duluth Mayor Nancy Harris said she and the rest of Duluth’s city council felt enthusiastic about the way Duluth PD planned to use its drones. That’s part of the reason council OK’d the purchase, which was funded through the PD’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget.
“We are excited about our public safety department any way you slice it,” Harris said. “They are just a progressive group of people who use technology to protect our community.”
After convincing city council, Duluth PD needed to get through the Federal Aviation Administration, which has required the registration of drones since December, 2015. Sadowski said Duluth PD. Capt. Peter Wilson applied for permission from the FAA about two months ago.
“We had to wait or the drones to come in and then get trained on them,” Sadowski said.
But the red tape’s all out of the way, now. The drones are ready to act as part of Duluth PD’s patrol force — ready to serve and protect alongside the officers.
“Using (a drone) is actually pretty cool,” Sadowski said. “Technology has changed so much.”