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Harford sheriff’s office unveils new aerial drone unit to assist police in searches, other functions

Though the grass at the Harford County Sheriff’s Office southern precinct was being mowed Wednesday, the sound similar to a distant weed whacker did not belong to any piece of yard equipment. Rather, its source was a drone high in the air until beckoned down and onto a small orange landing pad.

The sheriff’s office officially announced the creation of its Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Unit during a press event and demonstration Wednesday at the agency’s Edgewood precinct.

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The six-person unit has been active for about a month and a half, Sgt. Warren Brooks said, and has a collection of four drones equipped with one-way speakers, powerful lights and cameras to help deputies with search and rescue missions, visual inspections, K-9 tracks and more.

The drones have already taken to the skies, Brooks said, assisting Aberdeen Police with a Tuesday barricade incident and helping find several lost children, among other assignments.

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Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler said the machines are another valuable tool for the law enforcement agency, but acknowledged that drones have gotten a bad reputation for their application by other official agencies as the technology came into use.

“What it is not is an aerial Big Brother to go around spying on law-abiding citizens,” he said. “A lot of refinement has gone into their law enforcement function.”

The drones are made for public service and infrastructure use — not specifically for police.

Gahler said the four drones cost the department a total of $41,444, but at no cost to the county’s taxpayers. Like the sheriff’s office’s virtual training platform, the drones were purchased with assets seized from convicted drug dealers.

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“This is something paid for with asset forfeiture funds, meaning the drug dealers paid for the tools we will use against them,” he said.

The drones offer limited aerial capabilities to the office without the costs of maintaining a police helicopter, which some law enforcement agencies around the state have been getting rid of, Gahler said.

The drones feed video back to a control pad, which can then be expanded on a larger screen to give deputies an eye in the sky during dangerous encounters or when looking for lost people, Brooks said.

They can also be used in natural disasters to survey damage to structures, though they can only withstand 24 to 27 mph winds and are not waterproof.

Brooks explained that the drones have a limited range and are guided by Federal Aviation Administration guidelines. Their max allowable altitude is 400 feet, though there are certain exceptions. Furthermore, the drones have a limited range and their batteries are not capable of long flights.

The department’s policies leave when to use the drones up to deputies’ discretion, Brooks said. The drones can give deputies situational awareness and help them find missing people.

“I think it is an advantage for both sides,” Brooks said.

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