MIDLOTHIAN — Wind gusts upward of 17 miles an hour outside of the Midlothian Police Department made for a good day to fly a kite. But, even with all eyes on the sky, there were no kites in sight.
There were, however, drones.
Three members of the Southern Regional Response Group, which included Midlothian Police Officer Cody McKinney and Midlothian Firefighter Michael Happel, were out of the classroom Thursday, April 27 to put their newly acquired drone-flying skills to the test in the field. According to McKinney, the department contracted Drone Pilot, Incorporated to conduct the training program that will conclude after over 100 hours of flight time.
Drone Pilot, Incorporated is a Wimberley-based “turn-key" flight team administration program that bases its crime scene and search-and-rescue drone training and operations programs out of an Austin hub. The team has a mobile unit that travels to provide law enforcement officers or departments with the needed training to serve as “eyes overhead,” according to the Drone Pilot, Inc. website.
Heading the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) program is Gene Robinson, a former general aviation pilot in the United States Air Force and programmer analyst. Various drone-based and search-and-rescue (SAR) publications and blogs hail Robinson as a UAV SAR legend or rock star.
“We are attempting to create a standardized training,” said Robinson, whose company has conducted trainings in 30 states and five countries and is credited with 13 rescues or recoveries. “Everyone is sort of still doing their own things with drones right now. We train groups to have defined responsibilities, so they can seamlessly step in on other missions at other departments.”
Robinson added that Drone Pilot, Inc. has spent the last five years developing the training program focused on collecting data, saving lives and locating lost persons.
On Thursday afternoon in a grassy area outside of the Midlothian Police Department, Robinson also emphasized the importance of the drones and his drone-training program to be classified as a response tool — not recon.
McKinney, the Midlothian Police Support Services Commander, echoed the sentiment. After safely landing his drone on a landing mat, McKinney reassured that “unless it is an active or sensitive crime scene or search, residents will know when we are going to put one of these drones into the air. We want the community to feel comfortable with what we are doing here.”
Robinson explained, “We preach transparency. We don’t want anyone to think these are secret operations. We want the public to know that these are being used as a response tool and not a recon tool and that is a very, very important distinction.”
According to McKinney, the Midlothian Police Department will purchase several sizes of drones with each having different capabilities — ranging from one that can fold in half to fit into a cargo pocket to a drone that can easily maneuver through a home to one of the larger models capable of covering a large area from high above. He also noted the majority of the drones and required equipment would be purchased with money obtained through busts or seizures, so costs for the new program to the taxpayers will be minimal.
According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, there is a 10-to-1 savings to municipalities that choose to launch drones into the field en lieu of a manned aircraft.
Travis M. Smith, @Travis5mith