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Eyes in the sky: Dakota County purchases 2 drones

The Dakota County Sheriff's Office purchased two drones for the department in 2016. Photos by Michelle Wirth1 / 4
There is an option on the control panel to have the drone fly in a grid formation.2 / 4
This photo was taken by the drone from about 100 feet in the air.3 / 4
Chris Melton, left, Jeff Leopold and Ryan Holmquist test drive one of the Dakota County Sheriff's Office drones.4 / 4

The Dakota County Sheriff's Office purchased two drones last summer. Chris Melton, a sergeant at the Dakota County Sheriff's Office, said the county is on the cutting edge of new technology with the more than $17,000 purchase.

The unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration. The sheriff's office became certified through the FAA in January 2017. Nine people at the sheriff's office are certified to fly the drone. Every time it is flown, it needs to be manned by two people — the pilot and a visual observer.

Applications for the drones include search and rescue, damage assessment, crime scene search and training. However, the main mission for usage of the drones is search and rescue.

Last fall, with approval from the FAA, the department used the drone in a missing person case in Mendota Heights. Being that the area they were searching was near the airport, they had to call air traffic control and tell them what they were doing. Melton said that with it being such new technology, they weren't sure how it would interfere with airspace operations.

There are several benefits to having a drone available to the county, Melton said. In a search and rescue situation, there are times when a helicopter is unavailable. Searching on foot would be an option, but the drones can cover a lot more ground than a person could go with a spotlight.

"We can deploy them pretty fast and cover the same amount of ground and have the same capability of a helicopter for a fraction of the cost," Melton said.

Another benefit of the drone is the option to search a grid. The pilot can select the area it would like the drone to search. The drone would fly in a grid formation within the area selected. That option would allow multiple people to be able to look at the screen while the drone is flying over.

There are also areas that the department is not allowed to use the drone. The department cannot be used for surveillance.

"If we would need a search warrant to search a house, we would need a search warrant to fly the drone over the house," Melton said.

Everything that the department uses the drones for is logged. A case number is received from dispatch, deputies write a report and download the footage from the cameras. In addition, the sheriff's office reports its hours of flying to the FAA each month.

Michelle Wirth

Michelle Wirth graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 2013 with a degree in journalism and web design. She worked as a web content editor for a trade association before coming to the Hastings Star Gazette in 2016.

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