In its first official use, a Cecil County Sheriff's Office drone helped recover nearly $400,000 worth of construction equipment stolen as part of a multi-state theft ring, police said.
"The only thing better in its first use would have been finding a lost child," Cecil Sheriff Scott Adams said Monday. He flew the drone that helped gather enough evidence to obtain a search warrant for the property, which led to an arrest.
In addition to criminal investigations, drones could be useful in a variety of scenarios, including in tactical operations, lost people or fires, Adams said.
Police agencies in Harford County, however, don't intend to buy or put into use a drone any time soon, citing costs and legal issues.
"The Harford County Sheriff's Office has not advanced the discussion on drone usage past how the Sheriff's Office could use this technology, costs and the benefits to be gained by citizens of Harford County and the Agency," Kyle Andersen, a spokesperson for the sheriff's office, wrote in an email last week.
The Federal Aviation Administration has grown increasingly concerned about the spread of drones in the skies. The U.S. Department of Transportation announced Monday that recreational drones will need to be formally registered. Realtor Robert McArtor said he received an FAA exemption in May to fly his drone because he produces an aerial video tour for each home listing.
Using money seized from drug arrests, the Cecil County Sheriff's Office bought two drones – one standard and one custom.
The Unique Typhoon H Pro is a lower-scale drone that can be bought on Amazon, Adams said. The $1,400 package includes a limited fixed camera system that doesn't have a zoom, it has no infrared and the maximum battery life is about 25 minutes.
"But you usually get 16 to 18 minutes depending on the weather, the wind, [and what you are] doing with it," Adams said.
The custom drone came from UAV Solutions in Jessup. It has a better camera system with capability to zoom in 10 times, infrared, and a battery lasting one hour. It cost $12,000.
Five deputies, including Adams, are trained to pilot the drones. Two others are working on their certifications.
Adams started looking into drones a year ago at a seminar, but opted not to pursue it because of the regulations for obtaining a remote pilot's license, he said. Regulations have been relaxed a bit since then.
"It's still demanding, but it's not quite as onerous as back then," Adams said.
Another of those changes also makes interagency sharing possible, he said.
Previously, pilots were only authorized in their jurisdictions. Under the changes, drone pilots are allowed to operate anywhere, as long as they follow the regulations, Adams said.
So it's possible for Harford County or one of its municipal agencies to ask Cecil County for help, he said.
In the case of the stolen construction equipment, the main suspect lived in Elkton, on a property that isn't visible from the road, police said.
"It's down a long dirt path," Cecil Sheriff's Office Lt. Michael Holmes said. "It was the belief that's where he was storing the vehicles."
The sheriff positioned the drone, making sure not to fly onto the suspect's property, but in such a way that police were able to see large pieces of equipment on the property which matched the descriptions of the stolen items.
A search warrant was obtained; and $390,000 worth of construction equipment stolen in a multi-state ring was recovered.
"That there was a very successful case," Holmes said.
Other uses include aerial surveillance in remote locations, "where it would be very tough to get eyes on people or other areas," Holmes said, or in tactical operations such as executing a search warrant or in using the thermal imaging in a fire.
Drones could also be used in natural disasters, checking traffic patterns or in taking aerial photos of vehicle crashes to "get crash scenes cleared up quicker and roads opened quicker," Holmes said.
Scott said another use not previously considered but they became aware of after using the drones, would be for planning escape routes from schools should there be an emergency.
"It's ... cutting edge technology. We learn something new about them all the time as we fly them," Sott said.
It's a really cool experience," Adams said. "Other opportunities will present themselves as as we go forward. The drone industry is going to explode and we want to make sure we're on the right side of this and doing it correctly."
Not in Harford, so far
Harford County Sheriff's Office spokesman Andersen wrote in an email that whenever new technology, such as the drones, becomes available, the office considers benefits versus costs, he said. Rapid advances in unmanned aircraft or drones, is being considered by law enforcement agencies throughout the country. But Harford is not ready to use drones.
"While the Sheriff's Office has taken a cautious approach to drone usage, we continue to monitor research, state and federal legislation and court rulings on the topic of drone use," Andersen wrote.
Leaders of Harford's municipal police agencies have said they are not planning to implement drone use, each for different reasons.
In Aberdeen, Sgt. Will Reiber said the department would have to look at legal aspects of that "before we would go any further," but said it's "not beyond the realm of possibility to use" drones.
"It is something being talked about. There is case law, some out there, that obviously looks at that," Reiber said. "If they're very restrictive in how we can use them, the investment wouldn't be worth the use."
Bel Air Police Chief Charles Moore said he doesn't see the need for this type of crime-fighting technology at this time.
"I know that [Cecil Sheriff's] used one to find stolen construction equipment, however, I just don't believe our 3-square mile area is large enough to justify," Moore wrote in an email.