Plant City Police Department now has two drones at its disposal to use for a variety of projects throughout the city.
Plant City Police are already discovering the possibilities of use for their new drones are “only limited to the scope of their imagination.”
PCPD decided to use its Federal Equitable Funds this year to purchase the two devices which, along with the accessories and controls, cost approximately $8,000. Chief Ed Duncan said a large part of the decision to purchase the devices came due to the fact that for years PCPD has remained reliant on other operations that have air support to come to their aid in an emergency.
“HCSO would send us their helicopter and when you’re talking about a missing child or a senior citizen that has gotten lost, those minutes spent waiting for air support to arrive are too valuable to spare,” Duncan said. “And really, after a lot of research and thought, I realized there were many possibilities of ways we can utilize these devices.”
The drones — Mavic 2 Enterprises — are designed specifically for first responders and Duncan said the rate at which technology continues to advance over the years has led to small crafts being able to do incredible work. One of the drones has a 4k zoom lens and is ideal for detailed views, photos and videos at higher altitude. The second drone is equipped with a FLIR thermal lens, which will come in handy when searching for lost children, fleeing suspects or even for locating “hotspots” in structure fires.
Duncan said if they are using the drones for search and rescue or to monitor a fleeing suspect, an entire team will be able to have a visual. As an operator flies the drone, the camera feed can be linked to a monitor or device for the group to assess. As the operator focuses on flying, his team can search the image for the subject in question.
The drones can also be used for traffic control and to monitor large crowds. During the Florida Strawberry Festival, PCPD handles traffic surrounding the event and security outside the festival grounds. Having a drone powered up and ready to roll at any moment will help them be able to quickly assess the backup of vehicles so they know how best to direct traffic. In the case of a disaster or civil unrest, the drones will act as an asset for monitoring a situation for officers on the ground.
The City of Plant City has already turned to PCPD for assistance using the new purchases. Right before Hurricane Dorian headed toward Florida, PCPD went out with city officials and flew over some of the major ponds and waterways, like those found in McIntosh Park, to check for blockage and monitor water levels. In the past, the city has had to pay a third party for access to that type of assessment. Now it can use its own drones to quickly turn the project around.
The operators of the drones have to pass the FAA Part 107 test and will undergo two weeks of training to learn how to professionally operate the aircrafts.
PCPD has also used the drones to undergo a safety security assessment of several of the city facilities. With three battery changes, they are able to do up to two hours of flight time. The devices have an optimal five-mile range and can go up to 45 miles an hour.
Captain Jerry Stwan said one of the greatest attributes of the devices are the 10 sensors for omnidirectional obstacle avoidance. These drones will, via sensors, be nearly impossible to crash, and thanks to a built-in radar, will return to the launch site at the click of a button, when the battery becomes critically low or when the controller loses connection to the device.
Duncan said part of his responsibility as Chief is to utilize funds in the most effective and useful manner. Some drones cost upwards of $30,000 and he said he isn’t convinced his department has any need for something of that capacity.
“It’s important to evaluate the need for our specific community,” Duncan said. “If a child is missing, those are very intense moments. If an elderly person wanders off we have to exhaust a lot of our efforts to locate them as quickly as possible. These drones, they’re going to make a massive difference in our capabilities as a department. The main focus is strictly to enhance our response, to immediately be able to make those choices in a crisis that can be the difference between success or failure.”
Officer safety played a key role in his decision to kick off the program. If an armed suspect has fled and is lying in wait for officers to arrive to an ambush, PCPD now will be able to quickly launch a drone, identify the suspect’s location and “take control of the situation.” Using a speaker built into the drone, they are able to share messages with those beneath the device and can hopefully prevent any officer from having to walk into a dangerous situation.
“There’s an indoor use as well that we as officers can’t overlook,” Stwan said. “There have been several active shooter situations in our community over the past few years where this technology would have come in handy. One was a warehouse out on Amberjack (Blvd.), there was the Save-A-Lot warehouse. As first responders, we had to go in there. This guy had already shot two people, caught the place on fire and now we’re going in this big warehouse to find him. It would’ve been great to have this drone, put it inside the building and we could’ve put eyes on him and even talked to him through the remote. With the escalation of active shooter situations even if Plant City High School, if it were to ever God forbid happen there, we could very possibly put a drone out in there to quickly find this guy.”
Every single time the devices are launched, Stwan said, PCPD will log its flight. Whether for practice or a mission he said they want a detailed log of its usage. Duncan said that will help him be able to evaluate the success of the program at the end of the year and decide if they need to look into expanding it further.
Of course, Stwan explained, all drone operations must comply with Florida State Statute 934.50, which protects the privacy of privately owned property and sets the guidelines for evidence collection.