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Gainesville Police take to the skies, use drones to aid enforcement
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Officer Doug Whiddon assembles a drone owned by the Gainesville Police Department before a flight demonstration in Gainesville, on Oct. 12, 2017. - photo by David Barnes

Doug Whiddon has his sights set on the skies.

Connecting his smartphone to a controller, the Gainesville Police officer sends the department’s drone flying almost 90 feet in the air.

“I believe the goal for the department is to have one officer on shift that will have the ability to deploy it where it’s needed,” Whiddon said.

The Federal Aviation Administration certified Whiddon as a small unmanned aircraft flyer at the beginning of October, as the department is in its infancy with unmanned aircraft.

Whiddon said its main function will be for personnel safety, but it has enormous potential in terms of search-and-rescue missions.

“Missing children and things of that nature, we’re able to put this in the air quickly and see a greater distance,” Sgt. Kevin Holbrook said.

The drone can be airborne in four minutes, a fraction of the time to get a boat in Lake Lanier or walking out in Chicopee.

To be certified, Whiddon said there is a good deal of studying related to weather patterns and other airspace hazards. 

The drone has to maintain a 500-foot distance from the lowest cloud ceiling.

“If that cloud ceiling is at 500 feet, you can’t fly,” Whiddon said.

Costing less than $1,000, the drone is outfitted with a 4K camera capable of taking pictures and video. The tablet or smartphone attached to the controller shows the pilot the altitude, speed and direction.

It warns the pilot about possible collisions and dwindling battery power.

“If it gets to a certain capacity and I’m just deciding to ignore that, there’s a fly home feature on there that it will override me and go up to a designated altitude and fly straight back to where I took it off from and land,” Whiddon said.

It takes roughly an hour to charge the device for 25 minutes of use, but Whiddon said the department hopes to have multiple batteries at the department’s disposal.

Beyond search and rescue, Holbrook said the device can also help with crash investigations. Previously, the department would call an aerial firetruck (a truck outfitted with a ladder or bucket extension) and a photographer to document the scene.

“Collecting evidence and preservation of evidence is one of the most important things, but this allows us to put it in the air almost immediately to obtain those photographs, things of that nature, and allow us to open the roadways a little faster,” Holbrook said.

Airspace is divided into classes between A and G.

“Obviously we’re going to be very careful with flying over residential type airspace in terms of privacy, but in general, unless we’re near a controlled airspace … if it’s Class G, it’s fair game,” Whiddon said.

Whiddon said there are other modifications that could be examined, such as forward-looking infrared cameras for thermal imaging.

“We haven’t even touched how we’re going to use it from a tactical standpoint. Say you had a high-risk traffic stop, which we do frequently. We’d much rather lose one of these things than lose a human life, both victim, suspect or officer,” he said.

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