It takes about two minutes for Sgt. Steve Koch of the McPherson County Sheriff's Office to pull the department's new unmanned aircraft system from its case and launch it into the air.
The UAS was purchased from Saxon Remote Systems in McPherson with a donation made to the sheriff's office by Home Communications, Inc. in Galva.
"They're not toys; they're not for going and taking sunset pictures. These have a very specific use and we want to make that clear to the public," Koch said.
Equipped with both video and thermal imaging cameras, the UAS will be available to aid law enforcement agencies around the county with crime scene photography and accident reconstruction when needed.
The UAS can also be used to track suspects fleeing on foot, reaching a top speed of 45 mph.
In mission flight mode, the UAS will assist in search and rescue operations by performing a grid search, alerting the operator when an object near a human's body temperature is found.
"It's a force multiplier for us," Koch said. "When we only have two or three guys out on the road, this can give me eyes that I've never had before."
Those eyes will be especially essential on any SWAT callouts, as the UAS can be used to see around corners, through doorways and look into windows — no matter what story of a building they are on — without endangering an officer.
"There's a speaker we can put on there where we can either have pre-recorded tracks of whatever we want to say ... or we can talk through it with about a five-second delay," Koch said.
The UAS will also protect those responding to fires by detecting hot spots.
"With all the gas companies we have out west, if they have a leak somewhere, we can put this up in the sky to look and see where the leak is at without officers going and getting into danger," said MCSO Cpt. Dean Scott.
The UAS will soon be fitted with a strobe and spotlight to enable night flights. It can fly at temperatures as low as -14 degrees, can remain in the air for 35 minutes and can keep steady in winds up to 30 mph — but it does have some limitations, including not being waterproof.
"Our ceiling is 400 feet above ground level," Koch said. "...Per FAA regulations, we have to maintain a visual line of sight with the aircraft the entire time."
A regulation restricting the use of a UAS when any other manned aircraft is present is in place to protect the public — a fact that can hinder their work if civilians are unaware of the restriction. One such incident occurred last year when McPherson County sheriffs were involved in a chase and had Harvey County law enforcement lending aid with its UAS.
"We couldn't deploy it because we had a guy who was trying to be helpful flying around in an ultralight," Koch said. "...It's very important that people just stay out of the area."
When training with the UAS, the recording capacity is turned off because any video or audio captured by the machine has to be logged as evidence. All recordings are encrypted and stamped with the time and GPS location.
"We want to make sure that all this will stand up in court if we ever use it," Koch said.
It took Koch several months of studying to become certified to fly the UAS and learn the legalities surrounding its use. He emphasized the UAS will be flown only when a warrant is in hand or a person's life is in danger.
"I'm accountable for everything this thing does if I'm in control of it," Koch said. "...We're only going to fly it in accordance with what case law allows us to do."
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