A new law regarding the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, known as drones, by law enforcement officers is set to take effect Aug. 1.

The new statute, according to Sgt. Greg Windhurst with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, provides detailed guidance on law enforcement agencies use of drones, including agency policy requirements, search warrant requirements, safeguards that define the public’s right to privacy in specific situations and subject notification. It also defines how the recordings from the drones would be retained.

Windshurst said that to remain in compliance with the new State Statute, 626.19, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office is required to have a copy of the written policy posted and it must provide an opportunity for public comment.

The sheriff’s office has a draft of its policy posted to its website, co.douglas.mn.us/law-enforcement and in the lobby of the sheriff’s office. And there are several ways people in the community can provide feedback to the sheriff’s office, including a public comment period during the Douglas County Board of Commissioners meeting set for Tuesday, Aug. 4, at 9 a.m. The sheriff’s office has also created a survey, which is available on the sheriff’s website.

Community members may also stop into the sheriff’s office during normal business hours to obtain a paper copy of the draft policy and the public comment form.

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Sgt. Greg Windhurst with the Douglas County Sheriff's Office puts the propellers on one of the sheriff's office drones. Drones are used by the department for many situations, including search and rescue. (Celeste Edenloff / Echo Press)
Sgt. Greg Windhurst with the Douglas County Sheriff's Office puts the propellers on one of the sheriff's office drones. Drones are used by the department for many situations, including search and rescue. (Celeste Edenloff / Echo Press)

Windhurst said the sheriff’s office has had a drone program for about four years and that during that time, they have not only been used in Douglas County, but that the Douglas County drones have been used in mutual aid situations in neighboring counties.

Drones are used in a variety of search and rescue type scenarios such as searching for missing children and elderly people, fleeing suspects, stolen property and more. The drones have also been used for surveying and photographing fatal crash scenes, aerial surveillance for the SWAT team as well as the dive and rescue teams.

Windhurst said drones are also used to assist fire departments by providing thermal imaging at fire scenes. He said during the downtown Alexandria fire in February that burned down four buildings and destroyed six businesses, the drone was used to direct firefighters to the hot spot areas.

The camera on the drone was able to provide thermal imaging from above the scene which showed not only where the fire was, but where the water was being sprayed from the aerial trucks. The drone operator was able to relay the information to the firefighters and they were able to directly hit the hot spots with water.

“The drones are an essential tool that help in a variety of incidents,” said Windhurst. “They are not toys. We are not using them to spy on people. We are not looking in people’s backyards. We are using them only to aid and assist when it is necessary.”

The drones use a micro secure digital card, commonly known as an SD card, to store pictures and videos on. Windhurst said the SD cards are only put in the camera when they know they will be generating evidence in a case.

“We don’t keep the SD cards in the drone’s camera at all times,” he said.

The main drone used by the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office was designed and made for search and rescue. It has an added camera on it that is a FLIR camera, which is a forward looking infrared camera. This means it has night vision and thermal imaging. The drone also has collision avoidance so while it is flying, it shouldn’t crash into a wall or other hard object.

The image captured by a Douglas County Sheriff's Office drone is displayed on the control box, along with messages of other aircraft that might be in the air at the same time. Cameras on the drone capture still photos as well as video and thermal imaging. (Celeste Edenloff / Echo Press)
The image captured by a Douglas County Sheriff's Office drone is displayed on the control box, along with messages of other aircraft that might be in the air at the same time. Cameras on the drone capture still photos as well as video and thermal imaging. (Celeste Edenloff / Echo Press)

Prior to the sheriff’s office having drones, it relied on the Minnesota State Patrol aviation unit. Windhurst said that would often take a minimum of two hours for them to get to a scene.

“Our drones have the same capability as someone flying in the State Patrol helicopter as far as aerial observation and FLIR ability,” he said. “The benefit of having drones is that we have the resource available at the time the incident is developing. Not after the fact.”

The drone can also be set to fly itself when programmed to do so.

“We program it to fly anything we want or need,” said Windhurst. “For example, we could do one row of corn or two rows. It all depends on what we can see from the air.”

And when the home button is pushed, the drone will fly itself back to its landing pad or from where it took off.

He noted that there are three Douglas County Sheriff deputies that are certified by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly drones for the sheriff’s office. The training and license is very similar to what a pilot would go through, he said, noting that if those deputies wanted to, they could easily get their pilot’s license after being FAA certified to pilot the drone.

In addition, there are six to seven other deputies that have basic training in flying drones, but are not certified. The FAA certification is good for two years, he noted.

The sheriff’s office has a couple of drones, but the main one they use – the one with all the bells and whistles – came with a price tag of more than $20,000.

Windhurst said, however, “If we find that missing child while using it, it is well worth its price tag.”