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Florida Law enforcement: Use of drones saves time, money

Fort Lauderdale Bail Bond News: It has been almost a year since the Polk County Sheriff’s Office introduced the use of drones for emergency situations where they would normally use a helicopter.

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The system, rolled out in January, is called the Aerial Response Team.

Ten drones are used in daytime hours by five patrol districts.

The night shift has three drones.

The daytime drones cost $1,250 each and the drones at night cost about $23,000 each.

“At some point, we will be using 10 nighttime drones,” said PCSO spokeswoman Carrie Horstman. The reason, Horstman said, for the cost difference between day and night is the cameras have to be so much more “sophisticated” to be able to provide images in the dark.

“The drones are deployed only during emergencies, to assist deputies on different scenes, such as missing or lost persons, suspects who fled, in much the same way a K-9 unit is deployed,” Horstman said.

Though deputies can see the area covered by the drone clearly on their screens, the system does not have the capacity to record video.

The money saved by using a drone instead of a helicopter has been somewhat sizable.

PCSO has saved an estimated $107,000 by using the drones versus launching a helicopter, Horstman said, according to preliminary data collected so far this year, comparing January through November 2017 to January through November 2018.

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd calls it a “win-win” for the department.

“The whole reason for the drone is to just have a better response to protect life and property during emergencies,” said Judd.

They have been using helicopters less, he said, saving the department money.

That said, he adds “You can’t put a price on saving one person’s life, whether that be a law enforcement officer or the citizens we serve.”

Almost immediately after rolling out ART, the drones were put to use.

On Feb. 26, deputies were called to a person yelling for help from a swamp.

The drone was sent up and the operator found the man, who had climbed into a tree.

“The man was able to climb down and out of the swampy area, followed by the drone, until he could get to firmer ground where deputies and EMS could make contact with him,” said Horstman.

Deputy Richard Kilborn, a trained drone operator, said the rapid response of the drone helped in that case. It would have taken some time to get an airboat out to the man, and the drone was able to guide him to safety.

Another capability of the drone is that it can carry a life preserver and drop it to someone who is drowning, he said. Additionally, the drone has a setting that if it loses connection with the remote, it automatically returns to its launch point. “It pretty much can fly itself,” said Kilborn.

Drones are governed by Florida Statutes, which rule they can be used only in emergency cases, Horstman said.

On Nov. 16, the Sheriff’s Office assisted the Bartow Police Department with a suspect who ran into the woods.

Two drones were used for that occasion, one on either side of the woods. One of the drone operators saw movement and directed the K-9 unit to the suspect, who was arrested.

On Dec. 10, a man wanted for domestic violence charges fled from deputies near Longfellow Boulevard in Lakeland.

“He had two felony warrants as well,” Horstman said. The drone kept an eye on the suspect until backup arrived to arrest the man.

Lakeland Police Department, likewise, has invested in drones and even two robots, according to Gary Gross, retired sergeant and department spokesman.

“We can deploy a drone much quicker than waiting on a helicopter,” said Gross.

In one case, he said, a student was missing from Florida Polytechnic University and the drone was deployed for two hours.

“The student was not located at that time, but he was found at a friend’s house. There was no foul play. PCSO has an approximate cost of $500 per hour, so $1,000 was saved to taxpayers,” said Gross, adding, “PCSO obviously doesn’t charge another law enforcement agency.”

LPD’s two robots are a smaller, old one and the new 1 COR Caliber T5 SWAT robot acquired in March for $118,000.

“The robot was used to search a duplex in 2018 for an armed suspect, which was not located,” Gross said. “If the armed suspect had been in the duplex, a deadly encounter could have occurred.”

One of the drone’s latest accomplishments includes tracking down three kids who ran from officers after throwing rocks out of a parking garage during the Christmas parade, said Gross.

The cost for LPD’s four drones totaled $10,000, and another $22,000 for a large drone.

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