Columbia County sheriff’s Capt. Sharif Chochol briefly left his office last week before returning with a pair of black briefcases.
Inside were two members of the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office: drones.
“If it was up to me, we’d already be using them,” said Chochol, who refers to the devices as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles because the word “drone” is often associated with military-type operations. “I’m just waiting to get final FAA approval because all government use is regulated by them.”
Columbia County has not received a timetable for how long the approval process will take, but members of the sheriff’s office have been experimenting with the technology for nearly a year. Deputy Erick Jessee is one of six department members trained to fly the devices.
“I’m well-prepared and ready to use them in actual investigations,” he said.
Both drones were purchased by the sheriff’s office, which plans to use them to take video and photographs of fatal wrecks. They also will be used to locate fleeing suspects and assist with missing-persons investigations.
Chochol says the county has applied for FAA approval and could hear back at any time.
As for right now, department members are only allowed to fly the devices at its training facility on Range Road in Appling. But with assistance from a Special Response Team, the devices have been on simulated manhunts over a wooded area at the training site.
Chochol said the devices can be “a great complement to go along with canine units and helicopters.”
“And they’re a lot less expensive than helicopters,” he said. “Also, especially during winter months, when a person goes missing, they need to be found quickly. We’re confident that using a UAV, which is equipped with a GoPro (camera), will help us find people faster.”
Capt. Steve Morris is optimistic about the devices, which are identical to ones that can be purchased in retail stores.
“The use of (UAVs) will be a big help to our department,” Morris said. “This technology can absolutely make a difference.”
As Columbia County waits for FAA approval, sales of what employees call “quadcopters” have skyrocketed at HobbyTown USA on Bobby Jones Expressway.
HobbyTown employee Justin Cherepy says boxes of quadcopters – ranging from $39 to $1,399 – have been sold since December.
FAA approval is not required for hobby or recreational flying.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Cherepy said of the technology. “I thought they were popular last year, but we can’t keep them on the shelves right now. We’ve sold well over 100 since the end of Thanksgiving.”
Cherepy admits they should be handled with caution but stressed that the media has unfairly stereotyped the toys.
“When you turn on TV, so much of the talk is about spying,” he said. “And that’s ridiculous. For me, and everyone else I know, we use them as a form of relaxation. Some people go to a bar or play golf to relax, but for us, we enjoy going to a field and flying.”
Cherepy says quadcopters need to be flown away from residential areas unless being used for professional endeavors.
Drones provide plenty of work-related opportunities, from real estate agents to roofers to journalists and filmmakers to disaster relief organizations.
Last spring, Cherepy was hired by West Lake Country Club to fly a copter over its golf course and create aerial video of each hole. Cherepy’s bird’s-eye view of the course can be found at WestLakeCountryClub.com.
“The opportunities are endless,” he said. “Whether it’s taking pictures of nature or filming surfers, the footage you can get is incredible.”
HobbyTown employees also have seen a number of parents purchase copters for kids, urging their children to play outside.
“It makes kids want to leave the couch,” Cherepy said. “It helps make them active.”
The devices are so prevalent, both in the military and retail world, that by 2017, the aerial cameras are expected to create more than 2,450 jobs and generate nearly $480 million for Georgia’s and South Carolina’s economies, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International says.
Still, dangers surrounding unmanned aircraft do exist – and so does spying.
A controversial case occurred Oct. 17, 2011, when a quadcopter was used near the University of Virginia to take pictures and video, according to a $10,000 citation issued against the device’s owner by the FAA.
According to FAA regulations, the use of unmanned aircraft for hobby and recreation purposes is generally limited to below 400 feet, away from airports and air traffic, and the devices must stay within sight of the operator.
FAA communications official Les Dorr is wary of unmanned aircrafts, saying they must be flown with caution.
“If operated in an unsafe manner, they can pose a hazard to other aircrafts or people on the ground,” Dorr said. “While many are small, their propellers turn at several thousand RPM and they generally carry a battery with some weight. Flown unsafely, they could cause personal injury, property damage or damage to an airplane’s engine or structure.”
Lauren Smith, a public information officer for Augusta Regional Airport, says it has yet to experience problems with unmanned aircraft.
“Laws restrict drones from flying within the fence-line of our property,” she said. “And we’ve never had anyone disobey that law. I know unmanned aircrafts are becoming more popular, but we’ve never had any problems at our airport. Hopefully we never will.”