RANSON – The Ranson Police Department has an eye in the sky.
The department’s heavy-duty drone can help search for missing persons, access the site of a hazardous materials spill or monitor traffic, explains Ranson police Sgt. Keith Sigulinsky.
“The search and rescue aspect is a big thing for the area that we’re at,” he said. “We have a lot of river rescues.”
Regulations limit the satellite-guided drone to flying no higher than 400 feet, he said. It’s equipped with high-definition cameras that provide live-stream videos and pictures.
Using the four-propeller drone, police could much more quickly spot a lost or hiding missing child or criminal suspect in a cornfield than officers searching from the ground, he said.
Ranson police recently used the drone equipped with a camera with a night-vision infrared lens to give the state Fire Marshal’s Office an overhead look during an investigation into a house fire near Shepherdstown, Sigulinsky said.
“Any emergency service provider in the area can use us for whatever they feel that they need us for,” he added.
The drone essentially gives the police department’s 15 sworn officers a relatively inexpensive, if miniature, helicopter to deploy, Sigulinsky said.
The drone, which can lift and carry about 30 pounds of extra material, can hover inches close to otherwise inaccessible places where a helicopter could never go, he said. Such spots might include churning river rapids to an armed, agitated person barricaded in a home or office.
“If there’s something we can’t get close enough to, that’s something we can use it for,” he said.
Sigulinsky along with Ranson police Cpl. Travis McBride and Matthew Piepenburg, a projects manager with the city’s Public Works Department, received Federal Aviation Administration training to operate the drone.
Piepenburg is operating a smaller drone the city purchased for $1,400 for its public works operations. The second drone will be useful for mapping, monitoring and documenting construction sites, he said. It will also likely be used to keep tabs on the condition of roadways, sidewalks and other infrastructure.
The city’s overall training costs amounted to about $5,000, the sergeant said. The three city workers also are pursuing certification to fly the police drone at night if necessary.
The police drone has sensors to prevent it from bumping into buildings or anything else, Sigulinsky said.
“We bought the drone that can take the most attachments that we can do the most with,” he said.
The idea to develop a drone program started with Ranson’s police Chief Bill Roper, who learned at a law enforcement convention how other departments across the country are deploying the machines, Sigulinsky said. Ranson police also visited the Loudoun County (Va.) Sheriff’s Office, which has a drone program.
McBride said Ranson police officials want residents to know that the drone won’t be used for spying or surveillance. He pointed out that the drone’s rotors can be distinctly heard whenever it’s flying overhead.
Sigulinsky said the police drone might be flown to help monitor the upcoming Ranson Festival on June. 1. “Our biggest thing is is anything we can do for the public,” he said. “If it saves one life, it’s already paid for itself.”