By Troy Wolbersen, Douglas County sheriff

I have received a magazine in the mail at work for years titled “Air Beat.” It’s a magazine that is dedicated to aircraft operations for public safety. I have never subscribed to the magazine, but every other month, it shows up. Several years back, I joked with Sgt. Greg Windhurst that I put him in charge of our air wing, and since then, I have moved the magazine from my office mailbox to his for him to utilize or file as he saw fit. It’s safe to say that neither one of us thought the sheriff’s office would ever have an air wing.

It’s funny how things work out because today, the sheriff’s office does have its very own air wing, and I did put Sgt. Windhurst in charge of it. The air wing doesn’t consist of airplanes and helicopters, but we do have aircraft and pilots. Our aircraft are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) and we have four certified commercial and government/public safety UAV pilots. Sgt. Windhurst and Deputy Sheriffs Kevin Wiseman, Bryan Ziegler and Dan Wacker have all successfully completed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) training to become certified. Chief Deputy Jason Peterson, Sgt. Scot Umlauf, and Deputy Sheriffs Jon Holm, Adam Kavanaugh and Grant Larson have also taken basic drone flight training. We feel that it is important to have drone pilots available 24/7.

Mark McCabe began exploring the idea of using drones locally for public safety about six years ago. Mark is a deputy director with Douglas County Emergency Management. There were some agencies around the country using drones, but it wasn’t a widely accepted practice in Minnesota. Mark researched drones and sparked interest and support in our region and was able to secure grant funding to purchase several drones for our region in October 2015. Douglas County received one of those drones. Mark has also received grant funding to train UAV pilots in our region which has included my deputies.

Since 2015, UAV technology has changed and improved. With the support of the Douglas County Board of Commissioners, we received a new UAV last September. Our drones are equipped with thermal imaging infrared cameras and we are able to fly in daylight or at night.

We have always used aircraft to assist us with our job searching for missing persons, suspects on the run, and a variety of other things. Public safety will always need traditional aircraft, but drones give us some advantages over traditional aircraft. With traditional aircraft, we often wait long periods of time for the aircraft to arrive. We are able to get our drones to a scene relatively quickly to begin viewing from the air.

We can start a search immediately or begin assessing a dangerous situation without putting personnel at risk. Drones can be flown low and into small areas to give us a view of that area that someone could only get if they were on foot. We are also able to accurately map the scene of an incident with data provided by our drones. Our drones are a county-wide and regional asset available for other law enforcement agencies, fire departments and emergency medical services.

“Air Beat” magazine still shows up every other month, and now we actually read it!

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Troy Wolbersen is the Douglas County sheriff. In the Know is a rotating column written by community leaders from the Douglas County area.