Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By Lois E. Johnson
Moose Lake Star-Gazette 

Using drones for public safety


September 12, 2019

Lois Johnson

Steve VanKekerix flies a drone during the TRIAD meeting. The drone can be seen near the ceiling on the right.

Drones are proving valuable for many different uses, including public safety.

Steve Van Kekerix, the Emergency Management Coordinator for Carlton County, brought a drone to the meeting of the Carlton County TRIAD on Wednesday, Sept. 4, to demonstrate and explain how a drone is used.

"Technology saves a lot of man hours, even outside of public safety," he said. "We have a joint program with the fire departments and law enforcement. Now there are 15 pilots in the county that are certified in flying drones."

Van Kekerix explained that the Moose Lake Fire Department has a drone that can be flown over a burning house to find hot spots.

"It has a thermal camera as well as a regular camera on it," he said. "We can also use these for search and rescue. Flying it across the river in Jay Cooke Park is one example of using a drone in a search. When we are recording a car accident, we can do a video and still images. The information from the drone can be sent to the GIS (Global Information System) department to put together a map from the images. It can also be used in a hostage situation to determine where and how the person is held."

The cost of the drone that VanKekerix demonstrated is $3,000 but a grant application in the amount of $42,500 has been submitted to purchase a drone that is weatherproof, he said.

"It can be used in rain and snow," he added. "We should hear about the grant next week."

VanKekerix explained that pilots of drones for commercial use have to take pilot's training, just like learning to fly a plane. Drones that are flown for a hobby do not need that training.

"There are different air spaces that a drone can be flown in," he said. "They can't be flown over 400 feet high. Small planes cannot be flown under 500 feet."

The images that the drone captures with its camera are shown on a screen attached to the controller or a cell phone or tablet. Those images can also be shown on a larger screen. Multiple still images of a scene can be stitched together for one high-resolution large image, said Van Kekerix.

"Guards can be attached to protect the blades of the rotors when the drone is flown into tight spaces," Van Kekerix explained. "We can fly the drone into an open window and around in the building to search for someone or something. But the doorways are narrow. It takes a skilled pilot to do that kind of flying. We aren't going to violate someone's privacy with a drone. But it is different when we have a search warrant. We can look in windows or fly it into an open window. If we have permission from the landowner, we can fly the drone around the property."

Larger drones can also be used to carry equipment.

"A bigger drone can be used in rescue situations, such as carrying a life jacket to someone in the water," said VanKekerix.

One of the people attending asked if the drone can be used to catch speeders.

"That is illegal in Minnesota," said Sheriff Kelly Lake.

Another person asked if a person that was trying to get away could throw something at the drone to bring it down.

"People have shot at it," said VanKekerix. "That would bring it down if it is hit. But, when we are outside, we fly it pretty high."

The county's transportation department used a drone to map a highway repair project, explained VanKekerix.

"They have googles so they see what it sees," he said. "When the person wearing the googles turns his or her head, the drone turns.They used the drone to map the roads for the road repair projects. When the contractors want to bid on the projects, they can see the whole project. This mapping can be done in hours with a drone. It used to take days.

"The drone is also used when calculating an area for wetland credits. They used to walk the area. Now they can do it more accurately with the drone. They saved enough money to pay for the drone."

VanKekerix explained that drones can't be used by public safety around buildings unless the officers have a search warrant or if the owner gives permission.

The drones will be used throughout the county by the Consolidated Emergency Response Team (CERT), said VanKekerix. That includes the Sheriff's Office, the Cloquet Police Department, the Moose Lake Police Department, and the fire departments and paramedics.

"We want a drone covering every shift," he added. "It can be put in the trunk of a car on the shift. It can be used any place in the county. This is another tool in our toolbelt. We can work safer and quicker with a drone. It is safer to use a drone rather than sending guys into a wooded area."

VanKekerix said that the drones can only be flown in the daytime but they are working with the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) to be approved to fly the drone at night.

The drone can also only be flown within sight of the pilot, he said.

The next TRIAD meeting will be held on Wednesday, Oct. 3, at 10 a.m. at the transportation building.


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