Grand Forks County sheriff gets rare authorization for nighttime drone use

GRAND FORKS -- Piloted by Grand Forks police Cpl. Tim Schuh using a stylus on a video screen, a small hovering unmanned aircraft with four rotors and two cameras created a video map Thursday of the scene of a violent crime from 400 feet above it.

GRAND FORKS -- Piloted by Grand Forks police Cpl. Tim Schuh using a stylus on a video screen, a small hovering unmanned aircraft with four rotors and two cameras created a video map Thursday of the scene of a violent crime from 400 feet above it.

It was the latest use of the small unmanned aircraft systems, or sUAS, in a partnership of the Grand Forks County Sheriff's Department with an innovative University of North Dakota aviation research project.

The sUAS have been used seven times in five months in law enforcement missions. Sheriff Bob Rost announced this week that he just received authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration to start training pilots and others to operate the drones at night.

Only one other law enforcement agency in the nation, the Mesa County (Colo.) Sheriff's Department, has FAA permission to conduct nighttime drone missions, Rost said.

It will be February or March before the training and paperwork is completed for FAA authorization for night drone missions, said Alan Frazier.


He's an assistant professor of aviation at UND and research director of the special sUAS law enforcement project, as well as a deputy sheriff for Grand Forks County. A 28-year veteran of the Glendale, Calif., police department, Frazier also is chief pilot for the four sUAS, or drones as they are popularly known. UND, through Frazier's research project, obtains the aircraft from manufacturers and leases them to the sheriff's department for $1 a year.

"All the services are free to us," Rost said. His authorization extends to 16 counties in northeast North Dakota, and he's already deployed drones in three counties.

Many uses

Thursday's mapping was a new task, Frazier said: giving city police a quick and accurate map, using GPS technology, of the block or two around where two women were sexually assaulted by a man Monday and where the jailed suspect lived nearby.

It's not for evidence but for other possible uses in the case, Schuh said.

He's now a trained sUAS pilot and, with the aid of Trevor Wood, an instructor in UND's aerospace school, touched a computer screen to direct the 3-foot-long, 5.5-pound Qube aircraft to rise in seconds to 400 feet to capture video of the scene. The mission was completed in a few minutes.

Only about eight law enforcement agencies nationwide have such FAA authorization, and Grand Forks County and Mesa County are the only two with much experience, Frazier said.

The heat-imaging infrared, which works well at night also, came in handy last month in a search for a fugitive west of Portland last seen running into a field of 7-foot corn, although the man wasn't found, Frazier said.


"We probably saved a hundred or so man-hours in being able to determine the suspect was not hiding in this very large cornfield," Frazier said. "So we don't have this touchstone that we found this bad guy, but we did save the taxpayers of North Dakota thousands of dollars for all those searchers who would have been looking for someone who wasn't there."

That mission also illustrated the need for nighttime authorization, Frazier said. "We had to stop at dusk."

Protocols set

A UND compliance committee provides protocols for use of the drones and has authorized only five allowable "mission sets," Frazier said: Searches for lost people, post-disaster assessments, crime and accident scene photography, searches for serious crime suspects in which public safety is at risk, and assisting traffic control at major events.

The latter mission shows the committee's concerns about privacy, Frazier said. The protocol prohibits any photos or video during such traffic control because of the privacy concerns of people attending, for example, a political event or a concert, he said.

When an incident is reported with a request for the use of a drone, Frazier typically makes the call if its fits the protocol, Rost said.

Frazier said one of the first steps then is notifying the FAA, which typically is accomplished by the time a team -- connected to the regional SWAT force -- has packed up the sUAS into the suitcase-size kits and driven to the scene.

His pilot project of developing ways law enforcement can fly sUAS is providing feedback to both the FAA and the manufacturers of the aircraft.


Manned aircraft work as well or better than sUAS for law enforcement, except they cost much more and take up much more space, Frazier said.

The Qube is powered by a 3-foot-long lithium battery that gives 45 minutes of flight time.

"They have next to nothing in maintenance costs," he said. "So it gives small law enforcement agencies the potential to have some kind of aerial access that they otherwise could not afford."

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