June 27, 2016

Partly cloudy

Medina sheriff deputies training with drones for future ops

MEDINA — It’s a bird; it’s a plane. No — it’s a drone.

The Medina County Sheriff’s Office is the lone sheriff’s department in Ohio with a Federal Aviation Administration permit to fly military-like drones. Two deputies are in training as pilots to operate the aircraft, which have been in the department’s fleet for about a year, according to Sheriff Tom Miller.

Sgt. Jim Sanford, of the Medina County Sheriff's Office, holds one of two drones that are used for training by the sheriff's office. Sanford and Deputy Bob Locher are training to be pilots of the aircraft. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY STEVE GRAZIER)

Sgt. Jim Sanford and Deputy Bob Locher have been designated as future drone pilots at the sheriff’s office. Their training is on target for completion in April, which is when official drone missions can begin.

However, remote control training flights have been ongoing for about a year at Plum Creek Park in Brunswick Hills Township and at a location west of Homerville, Sanford said.

“It’s our eyes in the sky and to be used for finding missing people – not surveillance,” said Sanford. “The purpose is to save time and manpower when searching for missing people or an armed suspect.”

Miller said he wants to use the device to assist the county’s SWAT team during an emergency, scan wooded areas for missing kids, help during a hostage crisis and aid fire departments by getting aerial images of large fires or train accidents.

Overall, more than 80 entities nationwide have been granted the authority to fly drones via the FAA, according to records recently released by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties organization based in California.

In addition to the sheriff’s office, Lorain Community College and the Ohio Department of Transportation have been cleared for drone use.

The sheriff’s office has two drones. One is used for training flights, and the other is equipped with a live video camera. The aircraft weighs about 2 pounds and can stay in flight between 15 and 20 minutes due to needed battery replacement.

“It will hold its own in a steady wind but uses a bunch of power,” Sanford said.

The drones can reach an altitude of about 500 feet, said Miller, noting flying missions can only be conducted within about a one-mile range.

The sheriff’s office has a valid FAA license for use of the aircraft, Miller said. His office would have to obtain a search warrant through a judge if it ever wanted to utilize the aircraft for surveillance.

“Surveillance is not our purpose here, and it’s not really designed for that,” he said.

The aircraft is similar to a remote-control helicopter with an attached video camera. When flying the device, pilots don eye glasses allowing them to view “real-time” video photographed by the drone, Sanford said.

The aircraft were donated to the sheriff’s office in 2011 by Seville-based Vista UAS LLC, which has developed drone technology and wants to conduct business with other law-enforcement departments.

“They needed some law-enforcement expertise on how and when a drone could be used,” Sanford said. “We’re a local agency, so they got with us.”

Contact reporter Steve Grazier at (330) 721-4012 or sgrazier@medina-gazette.com.