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New law enforcement technology could aid in search and rescue, busting illegal marijuana grows

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The Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office is adding to its unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV, or drone) fleet this fiscal year.

Granted a $17,000 budget by the Board of Supervisors, the department has its eyes on a Matrice 600 Pro, a 34-pound hexacopter that will be outfitted with heat-detecting technology, night vision and audio- and video-recording capabilities, among other features.

The addition will be a major upgrade from the department’s other two drones, “home-user end” UAVs currently used for search and rescue missions, according to Lt. Tim Stern, who researched the specifications for the new piece of equipment.

One of the drone’s two cameras is a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) that will allow sheriff’s personnel to see the heat generated by a missing person, Stern said. The other side camera has a zoom feature that keeps the image in high resolution even as the user zooms in. That will allow deputies to see footprints and other fine details on the ground more efficiently, without having to fly an aircraft at a lower level.

“It’s time that we get up with the latest technology and I’m grateful the board has given us the opportunity to do that,” said Calaveras County Sheriff Rick DiBasilio in a phone interview.

DiBasilio cited multiple situations where the department could have used a drone to get into narrow spaces or unsafe areas without risking the life of a deputy. It could have assisted a search and rescue mission to save a man that drowned in the lower Jenny Lind area in 2017. From a safe distance, a drone could have provided earlier detection of the homicide suspect that was hiding in berry bushes off Highway 4 near Copperopolis a few months back.

Drone use in law enforcement has become increasingly common over recent years, and for some jurisdictions, they’re changing the way everyday operations are conducted.

Down in San Diego County, the Chula Vista Police Department’s Drone as First Responders (DFR) program has attracted national attention. It’s the only police department in the country approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to use drones that can fly beyond visual lines of sight as first responders to emergency calls.

Unlike the average citizen’s recreational drone use, the vast majority of law enforcement and commercial users are restricted to keeping drones within eyesight at all times during operations. FAA regulations also prohibit law enforcement from flying over private property without a search warrant.

Controlled by a rooftop operator, Chula Vista’s UAV fleet has responded to hundreds of calls for service within a 1-mile radius of the police department, covering about 6% of the city. The system streams a live video feed to the cell phones of first responders, supervisors and command staff.

Fritz Reber, a retired Chula Vista police captain, now works as a consultant for the department’s UAV operations.

“What we’ve really found it useful for is its ability to respond to calls for service that would normally be lower level emergency calls that just sit there,” Reber said in a July 11 phone interview. In a case where someone calls in two people violently arguing in a park, for example, a drone could be deployed to ensure that the situation doesn’t escalate to something more dangerous, thus saving response time for more pressing calls. “It’s kind of like sending a virtual cop.”

The city has seen success with using the drones for more serious calls as well. After a robbery, a UAV followed a man from the air as he ran through yards and tried to hide in a bush. While police were searching a house for stolen weapons, it spotted someone throwing guns over the fence into a neighbor’s yard.

“Having that eye in the sky with good perspective to be able to conduct the orchestra is something everyone’s kind of wanted in public safety, but it’s never been able to be done,” Reber said. “Chula Vista’s proven that it’s now capable.”

The DFR program is part of a nationwide pilot program overseen by the FAA that began in 2018 to fund experimental UAV use across a variety of fields, including international commerce and border security, medical delivery, smart city and autonomous vehicle interoperability, package delivery and public safety.

Based on these case studies in San Diego County, industry leaders are working to push the fringes of what drones can accomplish, Reber said.

The Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office also plans on expanding drone use beyond search and rescue operations, including surveying marijuana grows before deputies enter a property, DiBasilio said. He added that UAVs are less expensive than helicopters, and their compact size allows them to traverse tight-fit spaces that a manned aircraft could not reach.

A message for landowners: don’t plan on using the drone as target practice, or there will be serious consequences, DiBasilio said.

“If somebody shoots it down, they may as well have shot one of our patrol cars. It would be trouble,” he said.

DiBasilio estimated that the department would be able to make the purchase sometime this month.



Davis graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in Environmental Studies. He covers environmental issues, agriculture, fire and local government. Davis spends his free time playing guitar and hiking with his dog, Penny.

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