BCSO Airworx droneMembers of the Bulloch County Sheriff's Office explain the new drone program.
The Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office recently started an unmanned aircraft program that will assist deputies in looking for missing persons, manhunts, building searches and even recreating crime scenes.
“We thought in a county as big as ours, with as much population as we have, a drone program would be helpful to our citizens and our mission of keeping the community safe,” said Lt. Greg Collins, who is supervising the program.
Collins said the Sheriff’s Office purchased seven drones last November from Airworx Unmanned Solutions using seized drug funds and funds allocated from the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST).
A neighboring county was using the Airworx drones and Collins said the success that agency had in starting a drone program helped convince Sheriff Noel Brown and other Sheriff’s Office officials that Bulloch would benefit from its own program.
Among many potential uses, Collins said the drones would be used to work with “the Sheriff’s Office Lifesaver Program to help search for those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and also children who suffer from autism and may wander off from home.”
Two of the drones are equipped with FLIR technology, which will be particularly helpful in outdoor searches.
“FLIR stands for Forward Looking Infrared,” Collins said. “It picks up heat. It gives our drones the ability to search with that parameter. The settings allow us to search in dense woods, open fields and at night. It’s another tool to help improve the way we do our job in serving the public. It’s a great technology to have to partner with our boots on the ground.”
While the program is still just getting underway, Collins said drones were used on a recent vehicle pursuit that turned into a foot pursuit.
“We deployed the drones into a very rural area,” he said. “It was an open field surrounded by woods and we felt the suspect had run into the woods. Using the drone, we could hover over the woods and try to locate a heat element. That way we didn’t have to deploy a deputy into that wooded area, which was wet and full of briars. It just allowed us to be able to view from above any objects that were moving in the woods.”
Unfortunately, Collins said they believe the suspect got into a vehicle prior to the search and got away, but the incident showed how drones could be used in a search.
Collins said training on using the drones began in late November 2020 and has been extensive.
“We are basically governed by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), so the training is pretty intense,” he said. “We follow all their guidelines and took their courses that were available online. We then took a test in person to gain FAA certification. Five members of the team, so far, are certified.”
The five drones not equipped with FLIR will be used for more tactical purposes.
“These aircraft will work in unison with our SWAT call outs and are capable of flying into buildings,” said Capt. Marcus Nesmith with the Crime Suppression Team. “This allows us to make entry, fly a small unmanned aircraft inside a building to search hallways and bedrooms. These aircraft also have been used in crime scene reconstruction for major offenses.”
Collins said he has heard some concerns from residents that the drones may be used for purposes other than what the program is intended for, but he said that would never be the case.
“We’ve had some comments about spying and invasion of privacy and I can assure everyone that is not our purpose and Sheriff Brown would never allow that to happen.”
Collins said he believes the drone program will become a valuable asset to the department in its mission of protecting Bulloch County citizens.
“In our due diligence, we believe the unmanned program is something that would benefit the Sheriff’s Office and be fair to our taxpayers, as well.”
Jim Healy may be reached at (912) 489-9402.