6/29/17 -

The sound of whirring blades dimmed, the machine became a speck, as the Madison County Sheriff’s Department’s new drone climbed to almost 400 feet in less than a minute.

That’s more than twice as high as sheriff’s department drone operators expect it will typically ascend, but it illustrated the machine’s capabilities at a demonstration outside the sheriff’s department on Thursday.

“Ultimately, its resources are endless,” Detective Jared Fravell of the Investigations Division said. “It’s just an extension of law enforcement itself.”

One of the department’s six pilots, Patrol Deputy Darren Onwiler, demonstrated the drone’s payload capability as he steered it to an officer in a pickup truck and dropped a life jacket. Onwiler also maneuvered the drone near a utility tower and zoomed in for a close-up view of bolts as he operated the machine from a screen-equipped controller.

Search-and-rescue operations will be the drone’s primary use, and it will be available on a mutual aid basis for police and fire departments. The drone, which can carry about 13 pounds, also could provide medical aid to an injured officer who can’t be safely reached by emergency responders.  

Onwiler said the drone will reduce the department’s reliance on the St. Louis County Police Department’s helicopter.

“I and our other pilots are really excited about having this,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s going to benefit the citizens of Madison County.”

The drone, a DJI Matrice 600, cost about $30,000, plus another $6,000 for training from Georgia company Skyfire Consulting — a “drop in the bucket” compared to a helicopter’s cost, Onwiler said.

“If we save one person …. you can’t put a value on it,” he said.

The 4 ½-foot square machine is made of carbon fiber, a light but strong material used in the aerospace industry. It has six motors — a safeguard against crashing — and six quick-charging batteries to keep flying with minimal downtime. Among its features are a link to Google Maps and an infrared camera.    

The department has had the drone for about three months. The six pilots, who include one telecommunicator and five sheriff’s deputies, underwent training four to six weeks ago. The department is waiting for authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration to use the drone.

“It’s an extremely capable bird,” Onwiler said. “It’s going to meet our needs well.”