The Burleigh County Sheriff’s Department has received a four-year waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to operate drones/Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) over people. The Department’s drone pilots are Part 107 certified and alumni of our training program, Drone Pilot Ground School.
The Burleigh County Sheriff’s Department is the first county law enforcement agency in North Dakota and second county law enforcement agency in the nation to receive a waiver to routinely conduct UAS operations over people using a drone. The FAA approved the Burleigh County Sheriff’s Department waiver as part of the North Dakota Department of Transportation’s UAS Integration Pilot Program.
We sat down with Deputy Tom Schroeder, who introduced drones into the department, to ask him how the waiver will be put to use and to learn more about the scenarios in which the department deploys their drones.
The department currently has five drones that are used in crash reconstruction, emergency response for missing people, fleeing subjects, and documenting crime scenes. During our interview, Deputy Schroeder recounts some of the hair-raising scenes in which his team put drones to use.
— Begin Interview
How long have you been in law enforcement?
I just started my twentieth year with Burleigh County, and prior I worked for another agency for about three years, so 23 years total. I’ve worked anywhere from working the jail to working patrol, and currently, now I am handling all of the IT and technology pieces for our department.
Congratulations on a 20+ year career. Were you part of the decision to bring drones on board in the department?
Yes. Our department started looking at them when I brought my own personal drone into work. We needed to take some photographs, but we couldn’t get a person to the location to take the photos. So I said, “Well, I have an idea. I’ll bring my drone to work and we’ll take the picture.” I did that, and it just opened the door and kept snowballing from there.
Your program has come a long way because now the department is involved in the UAS Integration Pilot Program, paving a path for public safety agencies across the country to also integrate drones.
Our department is always taking the approach of leadership. We like to lead, we like to do things first, and we like to have other agencies look at us and say, “We want to do what they’re doing.” When we got the opportunity to get on board with the UAS IPP program, we thought, “Absolutely!” It’s a great opportunity.
How is the drone program at Burleigh County Sheriff’s Department structured?
I have four certified pilots and one in the process of becoming certified. I do the initial hands-on training with them to show them how to use the drone. We also enroll them in Drone Pilot Ground School to prepare them for the FAA Part 107 test.
What I love about Drone Pilot Ground School is that you have video lessons plus the ability to print out notes. It caters to so many different learning styles. Even after our pilots get their certification, we’re planning on using some of the lessons to do mini-training sessions on a monthly basis. Once you pass the test, there are some things you forget about. So, we pick segments at random and review those again, talk about them, and recover some things, just to try to keep it fresh.
Since starting the drone program at Burleigh County Sheriff’s Department about a year ago, how often have you had to deploy the drones in real scenarios? Could you share an example of one?
We use them quite a bit. We’ve done accident reconstruction videos with them and 3D modeling of crime scenes or accident scenes with them. We’ve even used them to photograph and document vandalism.
We’ve also used them for fleeing subjects. A few months ago, a man stole a car, and they were in a chase. He ended up ditching the car and took off on foot. Our guys got out of the car and one said, “Let me get the drone.” The subject ran about a half-mile and thought he had a good hiding spot tucked into the grass. Little did he know that the drone was a hundred feet above him. The thing that sticks in my head is, I can still picture the guy turning around, looking up in the air, and seeing the drone. He had this look on his face of “I’m done, they caught me.”
On the flip side, we also once used a drone to aid a gentleman who hit a pedestrian. There was a hill involved and some visual obstruction, so we went and flew the route to simulate what he’d seen, and then we shot some side angles and different perspectives. He was facing a possible manslaughter charge, but when the prosecuting attorneys saw the drone simulation, they decided not to charge him.
We believed it was just an accident; he could not see her. So we went on to prove that—to show he didn’t see her and here’s why.
Soon the department will be doing even more with drones thanks to the recent 107.39 Waiver it was granted to conduct drone operations over people. What was the process like to get that waiver?
The North Dakota Department of Transportation (NDDOT) did a lot of work, and they made it really easy for us. They oversaw the process and kept things moving. It took us, start to finish, about two months to obtain the waiver.
[One of NDDOT’s goals is to work with law enforcement to help expand their capabilities. Learn more about the NDDOT’s participation in the UAS IPP.]
A key element to the waiver approval was the use of a parachute system on the drone.
That’s right. To get the waiver, one of the keys is to select a parachute that meets ASTM standards, otherwise, the FAA will reject the waiver. We’ll be using a DJI Mavic 2 with a ParaZero SafeAir parachute recovery system.
What do you predict for the future of drones in public safety?
I think it’s going to continue to expand, and [drones] will continue to be a valuable tool for public safety. We’re just now starting to see the tip of what drones can do for us. One of the uses we’re looking at next is thermal imaging. That’s going to open up another level of additional tools to add onto the current ones.
Visit the Public Safety/Emergency Services section of our community forum to connect with other drone pilots in the field.