Unmanned “Unplugged”

Ben Miller,

Mesa County Sheriff’s Office

The Mesa County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado is one of the pioneers of UAS use by law enforcement in the United States. Ben Miller, Mesa County’s Unmanned Aircraft Program Manager, helped to develop the program and has become a national expert on the use of the technology. From search and rescue to land surveys to aiding firefighters, Miller and his team are testing new and innovative uses for UAS that may one day be used by law enforcement nationwide.

Your office was one of the first agencies to use UAS in the United States. What would you say is your greatest accomplishment in your time using the technology?

Educating the public. We strive for transparency.  We maintain a website with info as well as entertained community members at the office who request to speak with the sheriff about UAS.  We’ve also done numerous media spots, both locally and nationally.  However, my favorite would have to be the annual safety fair at the local mall, where we talk to kids under 12  for two days straight as they come by our booth.

What are your primary uses for UAS?

Right now we fly our multicopter, the Draganflyer X6, to collect images for three-dimensional models of crime scenes.  We also fly a fixed wing UAS, called Falcon UAV, for search and rescue missions.

How did you initially get interested in UAS? How did the program get started?

It started with sitting with a friend in my office and dreaming in 2007. Then an ad hoc presentation to Sheriff Stan Hilkey and my leadership after which they then sent me out to find out more.  From there I spent a large amount of time learning just what the FAA required of us to fly.  We decided, no matter how ridiculous it might be, we’d walk through the front door to gain the credibility needed to point out the shortcomings in the process.  

And to be honest, the FAA had little experience with small UAS and the process at the time, and it was apparent. Things are changing every day. Once we had FAA approval in hand, even if very limited, we began to fly the Draganflyer X6 to determine if we could really do the things we dreamed about.  We learned a lot of things in that first year.  Things we thought we could do, that we couldn’t, as well as things we didn’t think we could.  The process is better now, we can fly anywhere in our jurisdiction (Mesa County, Colorado) and we are really dialing in our operations.  Now instead of being first, we want to be the best we can be.

What guidelines do you use in your use of UAS? How did you develop these guidelines?

We studied our own uses for years before writing policy. We then drafted our policy and sent it through a significant review process in which our policy review committee critiqued it. We found that many of the issues we felt we needed to address were covered in other department policy. Things like personal use, attention to sensitive images, etc.

At the end of the day, UAS is a camera. We’ve used cameras in our agency for years and our policies have developed over time into a robust guide as to what is appropriate and what is not.

You’ve talked about using UAS during a fire at a historic church in your jurisdiction. How was a UAS helpful in this situation?

We helped the local fire department to identify hot spots while they were “mopping up” and then collected still images for their arson investigators, who used them to determine the direction of travel of the fire. The perspective that we provided the fire investigators is what changed that case for them. Even with a ladder truck they were not able to encompass the entire scene in a single photo. By using FLIR we were also able to see two hot spots that fire fighters could not see and this allowed them to address the “mop up” portion of the suppression effort much more accurately.

You’ve also mentioned a survey of a landfill that you did with UAS. What were the advantages of using UAS for the survey?

Cost. Plain and simple. We fly for about $25 per hour. Each year we are required to conduct a survey or the landfill in order to assess the amount of trash and to determine movement of the site. Normally the county spends around $10,000 to conduct the photo portion with manned aviation. This year we flew our Falcon UAV to collect the photos at a cost of $250. I would also suggest that as we fly lower and slower our imagery may be better as well.

What are the other benefits of the technology?

A bird’s-eye view is an undeniable advantage, however that’s not really the main driver.  The cost to fly manned aviation in public safety is estimated between $500 per hour and $1200 per hour. After flying unmanned aviation for five years our data says our costs are just below $25 per hour.

Do you have any plans to expand your UAS program?

Right now were are trying to dial in our services.  We have a core group of operators and our training is moving beyond how to fly and now focusing on specific tactics. Things like a concentric circle approach in search and rescue missions. This is where we set up a way point over the last known location of the lost individual and progressively fly greater diameter circles from there.  It seems to be the best use of the our Falcon system at this time. We take a few laps, and then calculate a new radius knowing how wide the field of view is. We send that new number to Falcon and it changes its flight path. We can then ensure we didn’t miss anything.  And, if we see something we can come back to it without having to reprogram anything.

We are also trying to dial in the best way to collect aerial photos, more modeling, etc. We have some amazing software in place to process these photos into 3D models and we’re trying to determine what the best collection procedure is. There are quite a few areas we are interested in that lack an abundant source of know-how so we’re left to figure it out ourselves.