Medina County Sheriff’s office seeks to use drones in support role

Michael Jermann

The Medina County Sheriff’s office is currently training two officers to fly small, remote-controlled drones to aid in missions.

Sgt. Jim Sanford, one of the two officers being trained on the drones, said the drones will be used to save time as well as manpower and will not be used in a continuous surveillance role.

“These drones are here for a specific purpose, not to invade people’s privacy,” Sanford said. “The sheriff even said the last thing he wants is it flying over his backyard barbeque.”

Currently, the drones are approved by the Federal Aviation Administration only for training purposes, Sanford explained.

“If we wanted to take them out for a mission, we would need to get approval from the FAA,” Sanford said.

According to policies and procedures for using the drones, written in part by Sanford, FAA guidelines restrict the drones from being used over urban areas without an approved Certificate of Airworthiness or permission from the FAA.

On the FAA’s website, a COA is described as an FAA document, which grants authorization to operate an aircraft in flight.

The FAA also restricts how high a drone can be sent. The FAA must be notified of anything operating above 700 feet, Sanford said.

“Most of these drones can reach an altitude of nearly a mile,” said Bryon Macron, national sales representative for Vista Unmanned Aerial Systems of Seville, OH. “But they’ll generally operate around 400 feet.”

Vista donated two drones to the Medina County Sheriff’s office in exchange for guidance in what law enforcement needed in a drone, Sanford explained.

Each drone is fitted with a camera. One carries a standard color camera, while the other carries a thermal imaging camera that allows the operator to track heat signatures from people or vehicles, regardless of visibility.

The cameras feed the images back to an operator on the ground. That operator wears a special pair of glasses that allows them to see, in real time, whatever the drone sees, Sanford said.

This is the same sort of technology being used by the military’s drones, but comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges.

Unlike the drones in the military, the drones being used by the Sheriff’s office cannot carry any form of payload.

“The only aircraft that are allowed to be weaponized are military aircraft,” Sanford said. “Even police aircraft aren’t allowed to be armed.”

Medina is the only county in Ohio that is currently training with drones, but other counties have expressed interest, Macron said, though he could not name them until deals with those counties were finalized.

Major Dale Kelly of the Portage County Sheriff’s office said his office was not currently interested in using drones.

“It just doesn’t fit into our budget,” Kelly said. “We don’t really have a need for drones right now, anyway.”

Vista sells their drones in packages that include the necessary training for anywhere between $30,000 and $180,000, Macron said.

Vista does sell drones larger than the ones given to Medina County. These drones can carry a small payload, such as a life preserver, Macron said.

Contact Michael Jermann at [email protected]