With an eye toward assessing emergencies more quickly and with less danger to responding deputies, La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith said he will allow the use of drones in certain situations.
Procedures will be in place to use La Plata County’s three drones only during emergency situations after they have been requested by deputies, Smith said.
“We want to use this as another tool to protect life and property in La Plata County,” said Deputy Henrik Krog, who made a presentation about plans to use drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, Wednesday night in the Board Room of the La Plata County Commission.
The county has spent $40,000 on the drones and an additional $10,000 to $15,000 on equipment upgrades and software, said Tom McNamara, emergency management coordinator with La Plata County Search and Rescue.
As an example of how useful drones could be, Krog cited the use of a drone to quickly obtain a bird’s-eye view of a major traffic accident. Such a view would allow the highway to be cleared more quickly because on-scene investigators would not have to take measurements and other analysis because many of the on-scene procedures could be accomplished later by using video footage from a camera-equipped drone.
A drone with equipment, such as a camera attached to it, is referred to by law enforcement officers as an unmanned aerial system, or UAS.
Another example of how a UAS could be used, Krog said, would be to assess the danger of a rockslide in an area prone to slides after a heavy rainfall.
“It’s dangerous to send people to assess a situation like that,” he said. “It can take a half day, a full day. With a drone, you can do it in half an hour, an hour. They help us in doing the things we have to do anyway without the danger to personnel and for much less cost,” he said.
Smith said a UAS would be used only in “an exigent” situation, and it would not be used as part of an investigation by the department unless a court-obtained search warrant was secured.
Krog said data collected, such as videos and still pictures, would be used only for the mission assigned to the drone, such as getting information about a traffic accident. He said the data would not be shared with any other county department and the data would not be released to outside parties without county authority or unless it is required to be released by state or federal law.
Unmanned aerial systems have been valuable in search-and-rescue situations.
“This tool is great. We can cover a lot of ground and see a lot of things quickly,” McNamara said.
The county adopted a policy allowing use of drones by its departments in 2017.