Sheriff’s Office demonstrates new drone technology to County Council

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane!

No, it’s the San Juan County Sheriff’s Department’s new drone! The M300 RTK to be exact.

During the regular meeting of the San Juan County Council Monday, March 27, members of the council and county staff were given a presentation by the Sheriff’s Office and provided with an opportunity to see the drone in operation, first hand.

Deputy Isaac Norton is one of the three pilots trained to operate the new drone. During the demonstration, Norton explained the drone is weather resistant and can fly in rain, wind, and snow.

Explaining the operation of the drone, Norton said when underway there is a pilot flying the drone and a visual observer stationed alongside that keeps an eye on the drone itself. “It’s one thing to look at the camera and then look up and see where it is,” says Norton, “but at night, especially, it’s a lot harder. So we are going to have somebody that is going to be doing that operation to keep eyes on it. The goal is to have other agencies like Fire, EMS, State Parks to be able to be a visual observer to assist us.”

Equipped with a high-resolution camera and infrared, this new tool in the sheriff’s toolbox is sure to be a useful new addition to the department’s capabilities, especially when lives are at stake during search and rescue operations throughout the county.

The new drone, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, comes with a transmission range of 15km, a 55-minute max flight time, six-direction sensing and positioning, and can operate in temperatures ranging from -20°C to 50°C.

The San Juan County Sheriff’s Office currently has two drones and three deputies trained to pilot them, each with Federal Aviation Administration required licenses. One drone is permanently stationed on Orcas island, and one on San Juan. If the drones are needed on any of the other islands in the county, they can be transported by, and operated from, the sheriff’s boat when necessary.

Norton and the two other deputy pilots had to take a two-day course hosted by the King County Sheriff’s Office before taking the FAA test. The pilots also have to pass a background check prior to receiving their federal licenses to fly drones. Knowledge of local airspace, flight paths, and rules governing flying are important elements of successful drone operations. Additionally, local knowledge of the islands are important, so Norton has pre-downloaded a number of maps and charts for reference during operations.

“Our biggest use that we’re planning for is search and rescue,” says Undersheriff Mike Hairston. “Had we had these drones last year—I’m just going to use the example of the poor gentleman who had walked away from a Care Center here on San Juan Island—we looked for him for most of the night and couldn’t find him. And then he was found the next day deceased due to the weather conditions. It was a cold, cold night …Had we had these at the time we could have put a drone in the air, and since they have thermal imaging it could possibly have saved the gentleman’s life.”

“The fire department is extremely excited about this,” added Hairston. “Because we bought them for search and rescue primarily, they have the ability to carry about 25 pounds of payload. So for example, if somebody is stranded, I’m just going to use my home island of Orcas, If somebody’s stuck on Mount Constitution, or maybe Turtleback, where people do get lost and injured. We have the ability to fly the drone up with some supplies and do a release and they’ll drop the supplies to them. So we have that ability. At least that way they can have medical supplies, food, water, whatever they need until we can get personnel from the sheriff’s office and Fire Rescue up there.”

To put this into practice, the Sheriff’s Office is planning a training on April 18 with Orcas Fire and Rescue at Moran State Park.

According to Hairston, they’re going to put someone out on one of the trails at Moran State Park. Then Orcas Fire Rescue is going to put together their search team and run a unified command center in conjunction with the Sheriff’s Office and State Park staff. “We’re going to do a search on the ground with the SARS team, search and rescue,” says Hairston. “We’re also going to send our drones up and use the thermal and see exactly how well we work together and figure out where our shortcomings are, and where our strengths are.”

“Also the fire department is very excited because we are coming up to wildland fire season,” adds Hairston. “And whenever they put the fire out in the wild lands we’ll be able to fly over with a drone, hit the hotspots and pin it down for them.”

According to the sheriff’s office other uses for the new drone will include police operations such as crime and accident scene reconstruction, situational awareness, some tactical deployment during emergencies when necessary, and service of high-risk search warrants to reduce the risks to deputies, civilians, and suspects.

Undersheriff Hairston reassured the Council that the department has established and will operate under strict Unmanned Aerial Systems Operations policy guidelines (San Juan County Policy #616) as well as state law that determines proper conduct for any surveillance exercises. Policy 616 states that any use of a UAS will be in strict accordance with constitutional and privacy rights and FAA regulations, and UAS video equipment will not be used to conduct random surveillance.

“It’s very important to us and the citizens that we follow every law,” adds Hairston. “They’re not going to fly to do any kind of non-law enforcement emergency, or investigative purposes, without a judge’s authorization.”

The Sheriff’s Office UAS policy goes on to state the new drones will not be equipped with lethal or non-lethal weapons, facial recognition technology, or devices that capture or intercept personal electronic information or communications transmitted via cell phone or any other electronic means. In addition, personal information collected during the operation of a UAS that is not directly related to the emergency response and/or criminal investigation may not be used, copied, disclosed, or disseminated for any purpose after the conclusion of the operation.

Following the drone demonstration Monday, Council member Jane Fuller shared her thoughts on the drone and it’s implementation. “I think it’s important that people know that this is something new that (the Sheriff’s Office) has that can be utilized by other departments to assist law enforcement and to assist search and rescue. At the same time, it’s important that the public knows that they have a policy that it’s grounded in, and these will be utilized for a specific purpose and not anything else other than the purposes for which the policy outlines.”

Kelley Balcomb-Bartok / Staff photo
San Juan County Sheriff Deputy Isaac Norton flies the department’s new drone as San Juan County Council members Jane Fuller (left) and Christine Minney (right) watch through the drone’s handheld monitor.

Kelley Balcomb-Bartok / Staff photo San Juan County Sheriff Deputy Isaac Norton flies the department’s new drone as San Juan County Council members Jane Fuller (left) and Christine Minney (right) watch through the drone’s handheld monitor.