POUGHKEEPSIE – The Dutchess County Sheriff’s Office has created an Unmanned Aircraft Unit. People more commonly refer to the unmanned vehicles as drones.
The unit has been deployed several times for search and rescue operations, including an incident in July on the Ten Mile River in Wassaic. During that rescue mission to save two people stranded in the rain-swollen river, a sheriff’s drone was deployed to assess potential hazards and guide rescue swimmers to the stranded victims.
The idea was brought to the agency approximately five years ago by Detective Kurt Twaddell. Originally the drone was used primarily for accident reconstruction investigations.
The unit, which reports directly to the Chief of the Department, Jason Mark, has been deployed many times to aid in missing person missions. “The primary goal of this unit is to help people,” said Detective Sergeant Adam Harris, the unit supervisor.
Harris credited his fellow detective Twaddell with bringing the idea to the sheriff’s office. “Kurt is the technical advisor to the unit,” he said. Twaddell is one of five FAA licensed drone pilots in the department. “Newer technology allows us to send the feed of what the drone sees right to a monitor in our vehicles or relay it to an incident command post as long as we have cell service in the area,” said Detective Twaddell, who noted that roughly 40 percent of the police agencies in the country now possess at least one drone.
The UAS unit, one of the most active in the sheriff’s office, is working on an agreement to provide assistance to agencies in the area, including the US Coast Guard, for calls on the Hudson River.
Stressing that the drones are not used for surveillance purposes, Harris said the unit recently worked with Dutchess County Emergency Response to deploy a drone to assess storm damage in hard-hit areas of the county, and the drones have been used to give detectives an aerial view of crime and accident scenes.
“Technology is improving and our current UASs are nearing the end of their life cycle,” Twaddell said. Newer units include thermal-imaging capabilities that will improve the success of search and rescue operations, according to the detective.
The UAS unit is seeking to replace the aging fleet with newer models that have advanced capabilities and come with warranty plans to cover the equipment. “We are currently seeking alternative funding to replace our six drones. Because we have several FAA licensed pilots, grant opportunities are more accessible,” said Harris. The detective sergeant also noted that funding for what he calls “one of the most important units in the department” may also be available from asset forfeiture.