Sheriff’s office using drones as cutting edge tool

The Big Horn County Sheriff’s Office has recently been using drones in their operations, mostly Search & Rescue missions throughout Big Horn County. The use of drones has lifted many burdens, especially time and manpower, off the shoulders of deputies.

 “It started when a rancher donated his drone to us,” said Deputy Kyle McClure, who  single-handedly runs the entire drone program for the Sheriff’s Office except for when he is away. “I’m good friends with him, and he didn’t have much use for the drone beyond using it to check his cattle, so he donated the drone to the department.”

Pictured above is one of two drones used by Big Horn Search and Rescue to aid their rescue missions across the county. The drone can not only gain access to hard to reach places, saving manpower, deputies can also communicate with lost parties through the drone’s speakers.
Cody Morris photo

McClure said since that time the department has also purchased one additional, newer drone for themselves using county money that was somewhat expensive (around $4,000) but also even more effective. The new drone is able to fly faster, can use infrared vision, can be folded down to a size small enough to be stored in a backpack, and even has a speaker to communicate with people, such as those in need of rescue.

“It being able to fold down is really nice and convenient,” McClure said, adding that the old drone is only able to fit in the suitcase it comes with, as it can’t be folded at all.

 Both drones have been used for operations such as rescuing a stranded boat in Big Horn Canyon, and determining if an abandoned snowbike belonged to someone who needed to be rescued. They’ve also been used once in regular police work with criminals, which was to chase a suspect that was on the run. McClure has also thought of instances where they could have been used, but weren’t available.

“There was a time when some kids had gotten snagged in a river. We couldn’t really speak to them because the water was just surging past them, and our newer drone with the attachable speaker on it could have come in really handy,” he said.

McClure mentioned there are a few drawbacks to using drones, such as that the drones they currently use not having as wide a search radius as the more expensive drones selling for around $20,000.

“The drones also can only fly for 30 minutes before they need to charge,” said McClure. “The batteries charge back up just fine except for when they’re hot. Then you have to wait for them to cool off.”

He also said flying drones in town can sometimes lead to wifi interference impeding the capabilities of the drones. As well, with the old drone, McClure said it had to be flown close to trees, for example, to see smaller targets or objects that were hidden. However, the newer drone’s infrared capabilities can enable the drone user to see through tree branches and other interference pretty easily.

But perhaps the most common issue the sheriff’s office faces is ensuring their drone usage complies with Federal Aviation Administration guidelines.

“According to the FAA, we can’t fly drones at night, and we also can’t fly above 500 feet. That goes in hand with planes which can’t fly below 600 feet; there has to be a buffer,” said McClure. “If we have to break those rules for some reason, we have to call them and say, for example, ‘Hey, we need to fly a drone tonight for a search-and-rescue.’ That way they can let pilots know to avoid the area.”

Drawbacks aside, McClure wanted people to understand just how nice it is for the department to have the drones.

“They save a ton of time and effort, a lot less man-hours need to be used in searches. We can have a drone scope out a five-mile search area in 30 minutes, which would take two officers walking around on foot (before having drones) a couple of hours,” McClure said.

An interesting part of the story is how McClure learned to pilot the drones.

“I had to watch YouTube videos for a couple hours to learn the basics,” he said. He described how his first few attempts at flying the drones went. “There was a time where I was flying the drone near some trees and it accidentally went into some tree branches. The drone was perfectly fine, but there was this drone-sized hole in the branches where it went.”

He mentioned there was another time where the drone ran into his car, but thankfully, neither the drone nor car were damaged.

By Cody Morris