April 19, 2014

Mostly clear

Medina County Sheriff’s Office drones cleared for flight

By Steve Grazier and Loren Genson

It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No, it’s a drone.

The Medina County Sheriff’s Office is the only sheriff’s agency in Ohio with a Federal Aviation Administration permit to fly unmanned aircraft.

Sgt. Jim Sanford, of the Medina County Sheriff’s Office, holds one of two drones Wednesday the Sheriff’s Office is using for training. Sanford and Deputy Bob Locher are training to pilot the aircraft. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY STEVE GRAZIER)

The sheriff’s two drones look like model helicopters, but operate basically like the larger drones used by the military and CIA to find and destroy targets in the Middle East.

But unlike the military drones, which are armed with lethal missiles, the mission of the sheriff’s drone is peaceful.

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

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

Sanford and Deputy Bob Locher are learning to fly the drone. Sanford said practice flights have been going on for a year at Plum Creek Park, in Brunswick Hills Township, and at a site west of Homerville. The training should be completed by April.

Drones are a growing trend nationwide.

More than 80 law enforcement agencies, colleges and other government agencies across the nation have been granted or applied for permits to fly drones, according to FAA records released by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties organization based in California.

In Ohio, Lorain County Community College and the Ohio Department of Transportation have been cleared for drone use, in addition to the Medina County sheriff.

Of the Sheriff’s Office’s two drones, one is used for training flights and the other is equipped with a video camera. The drones weigh about 2 pounds and can stay in flight 15 to 20 minutes before the battery runs down.

“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 and have a range of about a mile.

Miller said his office would have to obtain a search warrant through a judge if it ever wanted to use the aircraft for surveillance on an individual.

“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. When flying the device, pilots don glasses that allow them to view a real-time video transmission from the drone, Sanford said.

Made in Seville

The two drones were developed and manufactured by a local company, Vista UAS, of Seville.

The company donated the two drones to the Sheriff’s Office in 2011.

“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.”

The company has been working for about eight years to develop the product, and during the last year it’s been working to sell them to other law enforcement agencies, said Bryon Macron, sales manager for Vista UAS.

“The purpose of this is really to utilize it for what you would use a helicopter for,” Macron said. The drones are cheaper than manned helicopters, and in dangerous hostage situations or fires, they can get in closer to the incident without risking human life.

“It’s really a tool for any emergency where you need eyes in the sky,” he said. The technology and software also allows departments to push a live stream of the camera in the sky across smart phones to other officers,

The company has a couple of different drone types to perform tasks. The type given to the sheriff is equipped with an infrared camera.

“I sell a larger model to EMAs (emergency management agencies) that can drop in and get a reading on an ammonia or gas leak,” Macron said.

Macron said his company has worked with 10 different agencies in the last three weeks. Most often, it’s rural county sheriffs who are interested.

He said urban counties, such as Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County, aren’t likely buyers because drones aren’t allowed to fly over densely populated areas. Macron said the FAA requires drone operators to complete training to be licensed.

“That means anyone who’s using it knows how to use it properly,” he said.

Macron said Vista is about to expand its facility in Seville and has been looking for larger space, but plans to remain in Medina County.

“We don’t want to leave. This is where I live, and it’s where I want to stay,” Macron said.

Vista has completed sales to law enforcement in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky, he said. While Vista hopes someday to expand nationwide, it doesn’t plan to conduct sales to private citizens, Macron said.

“We want this to be used for law enforcement purposes only,” he said.

Contact reporter Steve Grazier at (330) 721-4012 or sgrazier@medina-gazette.com. Contact Loren Genson at (330) 721-4063 or lgenson@medina-gazette.com.

  • Anonymous

    Why did you remove my comment about this becoming a police state? New Sheriff own the Gazette now?

  • John Walsh

    Won’t be used for surveillance?! hahahahahaha!!

  • boonesimpson
  • Spartacus

    First it was all the paramilitary toys,machine guns, then a Tank, (Oh excuse me, an “Urban Assault Vehicle, which does nothing but collect dust and cost the taxpayers $240,000), now these airborne monstrosities to further violate our Constitutional rights. The cops in Medina County won’t be happy until they have one of these things hovering outside of every residents bedroom, spying on them. Isn’t it bad enough that the Sheriffs Dept operates as though everyone in the county is guilty of capital crime and they treat you that way as well. It’s no wonder that the citizens fear and loathe their heavy-handed ways, and these drones are just another example of their total ignorance of our Civil Rights. I loved it when the Sgt was quoted saying, “Oh, we won’t use them for surveillance”, which, when cop-speak is properly decoded, means; “Yeah, we’re gonna spy on every neighborhood, and every residence, and there isn’t a thing anybody can do about it.” This should not be happening, and I hope the ACLU files a suit challenging the constitutionality of these intruders, and I recommend that County residents buy a nice over-and-under skeet gun for target practice, just in case.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jack.fitzgerald.754 Jack Fitzgerald

    Really?? 15-20 minutes to look for a missing person. What kind of search is that? Im sure you guys are going to use this to fly above woods an see if you cant find any marijuana plants.. How much did the two drones cost?

  • Alpha Dog

    Time to send a message to Medina county. Do not spend a single penny in that county. Peaceful negotiations have not and will not work. Hurt the economy of medina county. Make the business owners band together against medina county sheriff. So stop spending any money in Medina county until the sheriff disposes of these drones. They have no right to use them, no search warrant for to use theme just because they are Law enforcement does not out them above the law. No money going into Medina county is the only answer.