Drone to help Box Elder deputies in search and rescue operations

Published: Friday, March 14 2014 4:31 p.m. MDT

In this Feb. 13, 2014, photo, members of the Box Elder County Sheriff's Office fly their search and rescue drone during a demonstration, in Brigham City, Utah.

Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

BRIGHAM CITY — Box Elder County sheriff's deputies will soon have a new tool to help them in search and rescue operations in the mountains near Brigham City.

They plan to use a drone to help find lost or injured hikers faster and safer.

Sheriff J. Lynn Yeates says his office conducts search and rescue operations every year, and 90 percent are in the mountains above Brigham City down to the Weber County line.

“I’m talking steep ravines, steep canyons, and the people can call out on the phones, but they cannot be seen from the highway,” he said.

It takes time to hike into those areas or to request a helicopter. But a drone can be sent quickly.

“Being able to get it up and going in 30 seconds to a minute, and up and flying in the air deployed, ready to go … and start doing a grid to try to find and locate, that’s what we want,” said Jon McBride with Digital Defense Surveillance, the company that builds the drones.

Officers could punch in GPS information from a 911 call and send the device right to that location, giving rescue crews a clearer picture of where they need to go.

“It’s a way of saving time and the danger to my search and rescue by having something go in there ahead of us,” Yeates said.

The deputies are being trained to use it. With some strap-on goggles, the operator gets a direct bird’s-eye view.

“The idea is to have a person controlling (it) using the goggles so he can see,” McBride said. “Also, he will have an actual spotter next to him.”

Several other deputies can also scan the area, looking at their own monitors.

“The first time they take this out and actually find a person on the side of the mountain will be, I don’t see how it will be unjustified at all,” McBride said.

The drone can have different cameras on it and can also be used for different purposes depending on what the client wants, McBride said. The drone can fly for about seven to eight minutes on a single battery and 12 to 15 minutes with two.

“This technology really, honestly, is in its infancy,” McBride said. “We are still learning a lot of things about them and what to do with them and how to incorporate them in.”

With more law enforcement agencies using drones, there is a growing concern for privacy rights.

“I don’t like the idea of flying over people’s homes or into people’s homes or anything like that,” Yeates said. “It’s meant specifically to go rescue people.”

During the just-concluded legislative session, Utah lawmakers passed a measure that would restrict law enforcement’s use of these unmanned aerial vehicles. SB167 would regulate surveillance of Utahns by applying current warrant requirements to drones. The bill states that law enforcement agencies may use drones to collect information only if they have a warrant or in cases already judicially determined to be exceptions to requiring a warrant. It also sets requirements for storage and disposal of collected data. The bill is now on its way to the governor for his signature or veto.

Yeates doesn’t think that will affect his department and how it plans to use the drone.

“Getting there faster to save somebody’s life, you can’t put a price on that,” he said.

Contributing: Viviane Vo-Duc

Email: manderson@deseretnews.com

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