Since the summer of 2016, the Pottawatomie County Sheriff’s Office has used drones to aid in various tasks. From manhunts to missing person reports to wildfires, the two deputies that fly drones for the sheriff’s office are able help the department be safer and more efficient in their efforts.

“At night, we take up a lot of manpower looking for a suspect. Now we have the capability to locate a person much sooner and in a lot of cases much safer,” Pottawatomie County Sheriff Mike Booth said.

The drones not only make the job safer for the sheriff and his deputies but cut down the time a suspect is on the run.

“With the thermal imaging, we are able to be efficient in locating a suspect,” Booth said. “Not only does it give us a better view of what our deputies are walking into, we can develop a smarter and safer strategy for apprehending a suspect.”

From a public safety standpoint, manhunts are able to continue into the night with the thermal imaging camera attached to the drones.

“There have been instances where it was getting dark,” Booth said. “We can’t say it’s late and we’re tired and we’ll be back when it gets daylight. Now we are able to conduct searches in the pitch black and locate a suspect and ensure public safety.”

Pottawatomie County Sheriff’s Office Lieutenant Ken Vanduser and Deputy Sheriff Steven Sample are the two trained drone pilots. The two officers have refined the process and made it much smoother.

“With all the technology changes and procedure changes we have changed a few things to make everyone’s job easier,” Booth said. “These two officers have really done a remarkable job since starting the drone program here in Pottawatomie County.”

As a drone pilot, one of the most challenging aspects is communication with the deputies on the ground once a suspect is found, Sample said.

“We are working on a few ways to fix that and with the upgrades we have coming we will be able to coordinate our plan much easier,” he said.

Implementing two drones makes everyone’s job easier.

“Having two drones helps tremendously,” Vanduser said. “When one drone locates a suspect the other drone can help navigate the tracking team to the suspect.”

Battery life and antenna range are other features the sheriff’s office is working on upgrading.

When the two drones work together, Sample and Vanduser work efficiently and effectively, Booth said.

“These guys have been operating these drones for quite some time and each time out they are able to search a grid better and continue to refine the process. A lot of people can fly a drone but their ability to communicate with everyone throughout the process is phenomenal” he said.

Through extensive training exercises, the officers have been able to master their craft.

“Steven put together a training program with our warrant team and together we have found the areas where we need to work on and have corrected them,” Vanduser said.

Since the sheriff’s office started using the drones, they have used drones an estimated 15 times.

“It’s been a steep learning curve,” Sample said. “With the addition of the thermal camera and our increased skill in flying the drone, we are able to do our job much more efficiently.”

The sheriff’s office flies their drones under the FAA’s Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Rule Part 107 which states:

• Fly for recreational OR commercial use

• Get a Remote Pilot Certificate from the FAA

• Register your drone

• Fly a drone under 55 lbs.

• Fly within visual-line-of-sight*

• Don’t fly near other aircraft or over people*

• Don’t fly in controlled airspace near airports without FAA permission*

• Fly only during daylight or civil twilight, at or below 400 feet* The rules are a little different for civilian drone pilots.

For civilians, to become a pilot you must be at least 16 years old; be able to speak, write, and understand English (exceptions may be made if the person is unable to meet one of these requirements for a medical reason, such as hearing impairment); be in a physical and mental condition to safely operate a small UAS; and pass the initial aeronautical knowledge exam at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center.

Civilians are able to operate a drone if they abide by the following:

• Fly for hobby or recreation ONLY

• Register your drone

• Follow community- based safety guidelines and fly within the programming of a nationwide community- based organization

• Fly a model aircraft under 55 lbs. unless certified by a community-based organization

• Fly within visual lineof- sight

• Never fly near other aircraft

• Notify the airport and air traffic control tower prior to flying within 5 miles of an airport

• Never fly near emergency response efforts On Dec. 14, 2015, the FAA issued a rule requiring all drones weighing more than .55 pounds and less than 55 pounds to be registered on the FAA’s website. By Dec. 31, 2016, there were 626,245 hobbyists registered.

According to the FAA website, reports of possible drone sightings to FAA air traffic facilities continued to increase during 2016. There were 1,274 such reports from February through September 2016, compared with 874 for the same period in 2015.

It is reported that the FAA receives over 100 reports each month of drones operating around aircraft.

“If you are out flying for fun. It’s really simple, don’t break the laws,” Aimee Harden, Gordon Cooper Technology Center Aviation maintenance instructor, said. “The biggest thing people need to understand is you if you’re going to fly a drone, there are aircraft in the sky with people on board. You don’t want to risk the lives of those people.”

FAA documents contain several reports of pilots claiming drone strikes on their aircraft; to date the FAA has not verified any collision between a civil aircraft and a civil drone. Every investigation has found the reported collisions were either birds, impact with other items such as wires, posts or structural failure not related to colliding with an unmanned aircraft.

From a commercial standpoint, the FAA estimates 34 percent of commercial drones are used for aerial photography. Other uses include utility inspection, real estate and agriculture. Drones have multiple uses and can be utilized for several different tasks.

For those wanting to become a commercial drone pilot, Gordon Cooper Technology Center’s Aviation Center in Shawnee offers commercial pilot license testing.

“We are a certified FAA testing center. Tests are $165,” Harden said.

In addition to the general information, civilians can register their drone at https://faadronezone.faa. gov/#/.

Pictured below is a Google Map of the Dale area, where sheriff's deputies were first able to use the department's drone, with great views from above, to help track down two Lincoln County jail escapees hiding in the heavily wooded areas around and in the North Canadian River east of Dale.