Eight police officers and three firefighters in St. Clair Shores are training to staff the new unmanned aerial system program. An image of Lac Sainte Clair Harbor is captured by the drone during training in March. ST. CLAIR SHORES […]
ST. CLAIR SHORES — A year after submitting a grant application to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get an unmanned aerial system off the ground in St. Clair Shores, eight police officers and three firefighters have been trained to fly drones.
Police Sgt. Stephen Stindt, who is heading the program for the city, said drones have become increasingly popular with communities to be used for a variety of tasks for police and fire departments, including search and rescue.
“Now it’s gotten to the point where the technology is so good that you can fly these things and perform just a myriad of operations,” he said.
In a barricaded gunman situation, for instance, Stindt said they would be able to fly a drone into the house to assess the status of anyone still inside.
“We could fly these and have ... live (real-time) video of what’s going on,” he said. “One of them we have is small enough to actually fly into a house, if need be.”
The drones also have thermal imaging capabilities so they can assist in a nighttime search for a suspect hiding from police.
“You can use these for accident reconstruction, as well,” Stindt said. “We are learning this ... as we go.”
Detective Sgt. Matt McCallister said three drones have been entirely paid for with the Port Security Grant from FEMA, which was awarded to St. Clair Shores in September 2020. The new drones — the Autel Evo II, DJI Mavic II and the Mavic Mini 2 — cost $15,100 altogether.
The unmanned aerial system (UAS or drone) program will also help emergency responders search for missing persons, boaters or swimmers in distress; assist the Emergency Response Team; and get an aerial view of Lake St. Clair’s shoreline during heavy rains and flooding.
“It’s the aerial view that we wouldn’t have, otherwise,” he said. “It’s available now. It’s new technology that we didn’t have previously, and a lot of area departments are using them now.”
The 11 operators completed 16 hours of training, learning how to operate the drones, legal issues about airspace and privacy concerns, and Federal Aviation Administration guidelines. All 11 operators are required to undergo and pass the FAA unmanned aircraft flight test for certification, which is expected to be complete by May.
Stindt said operators were trained in FAA guidelines for flying in certain airspaces at different times of the day, participating in two days of actual flight time.
“There’s definitely some time to get used to the remote,” he said. “You have an aircraft that, literally, can go in any direction, forward, back, up and down ... do bank turns. There’s a lot of training that’s going to need to go into mastering the operation of these.”
He said the operators would be continuing their training on a monthly basis. Training locations and times will be posted on the city’s Facebook page so the public doesn’t become concerned there is an active search when the officers are practicing.
Operating the drones requires a two-person team, Stindt explained: a pilot command and a visual spotter.
“The pilot command is the actual person that’s flying the drone, and his assistant or visual observer is looking for anything that’s going to cause a drone an issue,” he explained, such as flying too low or power lines in the way. “He’s got to sustain a line of sight on the drone. We can’t fly these without a line of sight.”
Depending on the drone, that could be up to a quarter mile away.
“Each drone has capability to record the mission, and that’s going to be a requirement that any mission we fly, other than training, will be recorded and stored,” Stindt said.
Fire Chief James Piper said he was excited for the Fire Department to be able to participate in the program.
“It’s one of those technologies that’s sort of emerging in the fire service, as well,” he said.
There are situations where it’s not worth the risk to send a human firefighter to investigate a situation where it could be useful to use a drone, he said.
“There’s a hole out there in the ice and we’re not sure what’s going on, and it’s not always the safest to send someone out on the ice when you don’t know what’s going on,” he used as an example. “The drone could be quickly deployed and it’s got enough flight time ... for a suspicious call on the ice.”
Piper said that the longer battery life of 15-30 minutes helped convince them that now was the right time to begin using drone technology.
“Your bread-and-butter house fire is not likely to be the kind of thing where we’re going to deploy the drone, but you start to get some more complicated locations, a commercial-type situation, (and) it’d be really nice to put the drone up and get a look at the roof conditions,” he said.
While it hasn’t occurred in his time serving in St. Clair Shores, Piper said he had been in situations in other departments where he had been sent up in a helicopter to assess a fire or help with a search and rescue. The drone is a lot cheaper and easier to deploy than a manned aircraft, he said.
With operators in the police and fire departments, there’s the ability to call for assistance from the other department if one department is swamped with a situation that calls for using the drone.
“It’s got some interesting applications and when they asked if we wanted to be part of it, I thought yes, that’d be great,” Piper said.