Eyes in the sky, but it’s not a drone

HUDSON–The Columbia County Sheriff’s Office plans to get at no cost an unmanned aerial vehicle remotely controlled from the ground. But, “Don’t call it a drone; drones carry bombs,” Sheriff David Bartlett told the county Board of Supervisors Public Safety Committee meeting Wednesday, February 15. This unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), he said, will search for missing individuals and investigate disasters from additional perspectives.

County Fire Coordinator William Hunt saw one potential use of the device, recalling an effort to find something in the woods at night where “searchers walked around very close to it and didn’t find it.”

Sheriff Bartlett indicated that his main concern is “search and rescue,” including of “people with disabilities who wander away.” The UAV, he said, can help “find missing people in rivers and woods,” adding that the UAV would help by “supplementing divers and canine units.”

In addition it provides aerial views of fires and floods as they happen and can show additional “evidence” at accident and disaster sites. “I’ve talked to other sheriffs who have it, and it’s as good as gold,” the sheriff said.

The UAV, also called a “small unmanned aircraft,” comes with video cameras that feed what the aircraft’s cameras “see” to monitor screens. One camera transmits video images, a second imaging device senses infrared and heat sources on the ground. The UAV can alternate between cameras.

Supervisor William Hughes (D-Hudson, 4th Ward) asked if the UAV might “listen in” to people’s conversations. Sheriff Bartlett answered that it does not, saying its use would be “strictly video.”

Furthermore, the sheriff said he would not use the aircraft to find drugs or plants cultivated to yield drugs. That is for the Army to do, he said.

In addition, the UAV will not fly over gatherings, including protest demonstrations. FAA rules forbid this type of UAV from flying over large groups of people.

FAA regulations also require that the UAV stay away from airports, except with special arrangements. “Piloting” the UAV requires a special license, which Sheriff Bartlett said he and five others are already preparing for.

The sheriff said the UAV he is interested in costs about $11,000, but an official who knew that his office was looking for a UAV, has promised to find money for it. Sheriff Bartlett did not identify the official in his presentation and The Columbia Paper was unable to reach the sheriff this week.

Supervisors voted to recommend to the full board that the county accept the money, although some wondered what the annual cost of insurance would be for the aircraft.

Also at the February 15 committee meeting, Columbia County Probation Department Director Vince Doto and supervisors discussed implications of the latest effort in the state to raise from 16 to 18 the lowest age at which a person can face adult consequences for criminal offenses. This would shift accused 16 and 17-year-olds from criminal courts to county probation offices and family courts, which one supervisor described as “already overburdened.” Previous drafts of the state bill included funding counties for the new expenses, but the latest draft does not. The supervisors agreed that it should. “We can’t have another unfunded mandate,” one said.

Reach by phone February 17 and asked whether the extra costs for probation departments and family courts would be made up by the reduced cost to criminal courts, Mr. Doto said, “That’s something handled higher up than our level.”

The next Columbia County Board of Supervisors Public Safety meeting is Wednesday, March 15 at 5 p.m. at 401 State Street.

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