Police Drone

Casper police officer Tanner Rockwell, left, and Sgt. Lyle Berg launch the department’s new drone during a demonstration last Wednesday afternoon at Lake McKenzie in Casper. Trained pilots will use the drone to photograph crime scenes and aid in search and rescue operations.

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune

A drone hovered over a body lying in reeds along the shore of Lake McKenzie. Police drone operators alerted firefighters, who used a raft to recover it.

The body was that of firefighter Troy Heib, and he was just fine. Heib was hiding in the reeds as part of a joint training operation conducted Wednesday afternoon by the Casper fire and police departments.

Police purchased the drone this summer at a cost of $2,200, said Detective John Hatcher. They’ll use it to take aerial photographs of crime scenes, conduct search and rescue operations and limit officers’ exposure to danger.

“Information is crucial to us,” said fire department Capt. Patrick McJunkin.

The new drone is about the length of a person’s forearm. It takes flight using four rotors, which allow it to take off and land vertically or hover over a specific area. It’s operated via a hand-held controller that’s equipped with a video screen displaying real-time footage from the drone’s camera screen.

Two-officer teams operate the device and at least one team member must be FAA certified to fly it. The department has two FAA certified drone pilots, Sgt. Lyle Berg and officer Tanner Rockwell, who made up Wednesday’s flying team.

The team responded to a simulated potential drowning, Hatcher said. Someone was seen flailing by reeds on the southern end of the lake, and police were called to respond.

The drone’s four rotors engaged, lifting the DJI Phantom off from a parking lot by the Lake McKenzie dog park, heading west around the northern edge of the lake.

Wind on the lake rippled the surface of the water, simulating a current, and the drone significantly picked up speed along the southern side of the lake as gusts pushed it toward the reeds.

Berg served as a spotter, coaching the pilot around obstacles, as Rockwell watched a display showing footage from the drone’s mounted camera.

When Rockwell spotted Heib’s body, firefighters Ty Herron and Joe Hagan sprung into action, paddling across the lake.

“They got ‘em,” Rockwell said, watching the firefighters pull the body into their raft via the video feed.

Without the drone, firefighters would have had to push through thick vegetation to search for the drowning person. And even then, they would not have had as comprehensive of a view.

Similarly, the drone will be useful for crime scene analysis. It can easily hover above a location that in the past police would have photographed using the ladder from a fire truck.

The drone has roughly 20 minutes of battery life, and the department owns five batteries, which extend the effective life of the machine to an hour and 40 minutes, officer Justin Edberg said.

Police hope to purchase a second drone in the future, but the cost is keeping that from happening for now. The department is planning to expand the number of certified pilots, making it easier to respond quickly to an incident.

Follow crime reporter Shane Sanderson on Twitter @shanersanderson

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