Spend a little time at the baseball fields on Bedford Avenue and you might catch a glimpse of a DJI Phantom 2 drone touching down on the pitcher’s mound before lifting off to make a sweep around the Elks National Home.
The flight exercise is part of a makeshift training program the Bedford Fire Department put together for volunteers to learn the about Drone 1, its newest tool for special operations.
Equipped with a GoPro camera, the quadcopter is an extra eye in the sky during initial size-ups of fires, hazmat incidents and, most recently, search-and-rescue operations.
Volunteers used the drone to search the James River after someone reported a possible drowning April 29. They deployed it again May 12 when a hiker was lost and dehydrated on a trail below the Blue Ridge Parkway.
“We went up there and used it to help pinpoint where she was,” said volunteer firefighter C.J. Marshall. “I mean, we didn’t see her through the camera, but she could hear it and the search team could hear it. So we knew we were in the right area.”
The two searches happened less than a month after Drone 1 was put into service, and Marshall said it could be useful for more department operations.
“Ideally, I foresee us using this more for search-and-rescue type situations. However, when brush fire season kicks off, we could use it for brush fires, special operations calls like someone in the water [or] someone lost on a boat in the water. We can roll up and down the river quicker than a boat can get deployed and get in. It’s really for the preliminary size-up stuff, if you will,” Marshall said.
About seven of the department’s 44 volunteers have learned how to fly the drone, which Marshall said he chose because it’s basically “dummy-proof.”
If the batteries drain or the device loses its connection with the pilot, a fail-safe switch automatically brings it back to its takeoff point. The gimbal, or stabilizer, that carries the camera prevents the video image from shaking if it’s flying in windy conditions.
Marshall said the video aspect has raised some privacy concerns among residents who don’t want to be in the footage, or who oppose law enforcement having access to such technology. He insisted the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office wouldn’t use the drone, “but if we ever used it with them, it’d be in a search-and-rescue type situation.”
Legislation will go into effect July 1 making drone video footage inadmissible in court if it was obtained without a warrant. That footage, however, is subject to public records laws, meaning anyone can access it.
“We’re using it for public safety in the public interest. We’re not invading anybody’s privacy. We’re not going to hover over somebody’s backyard going, ‘Oh, they’re in a bikini!’ That’s ridiculous. We’re not doing that. And I think that’s what a lot of people are afraid of,” Marshall said.
The Federal Aviation Administration’s regulations on drones have changed so much that enthusiasts and rescue agencies often are unclear about what they’re required to do for paperwork and training.
Federal aviation laws mandate no unmanned aerial system can fly above 400 feet, in restricted airspaces or over crowds of people. Any other requirements or restrictions are determined by whether the drone is being flown by commercial companies, volunteer organizations or local government agencies.
“It’s kind of hazy what we’re required [to do,]” Marshall said.
He reached out to the FAA two weeks ago to find out if the department needs a waiver for its operations, but hasn’t received a response. In the meantime, volunteers are keeping video of all flights and tracking training times in case the FAA requires flight logs in the future.
The ever-changing rules leave other local fire and EMS agencies hesitant to purchase drones, which can come with a hefty price tag. The Bedford department’s drone cost about $2,300, which included all of the necessary operating equipment and a one-year warranty, Marshall said.
Lynchburg Fire Department’s Deputy Chief of Operations Jason Campbell said most of the FAA’s restrictions don’t apply to the Bedford department because it’s a nonprofit. His agency has no plans to purchase a drone.
“We briefly began exploring the possibility, but there are limitations by the FAA on use by local and state governments,” Campbell said.
Amherst County Public Safety Director Gary Roakes said he thinks a drone could be useful, but he hasn’t started any “serious research” into the restrictions or feasibility.
“We haven’t looked at it from a high-priority standpoint,” Roakes said.
Like any other aircraft, drones have a learning curve.
“Really, to get comfortable with it, it’s stick time,” Marshall said. “You’ve got to stay on it. You’ve got to make sure you know how to get the angles and watch out for trees and judge your distances, and that’s really it.”
Drones have unavoidable limitations, too, including trees, short battery life and radio interference.
Marshall said the department’s drone almost plunged into the James River when he flew it near construction equipment during the search for the possible drowning victims.
“When I took off, it lifted and then did a hard bank left towards trees,” Marshall said, recalling how he struggled to regain control of the device. He said drone enthusiast websites mention similar experiences, which he chalked up to radio interference of some sort.
The drone is limited to a 15-minute flight time per battery, which takes 85 minutes to recharge. Marshall said the department has two batteries and plans to purchase more.
He doesn’t foresee the department getting any more drones.
“Honestly, we’ve used it twice in a week because we’ve had the opportunity to. We had the right people up here to utilize it,” Marshall said.
The first time a drone was used in a search-and-rescue operation in Virginia was when the Virginia Department of Emergency Management tapped Virginia Tech’s Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science during the search for Hannah Graham last year.
Graham, an 18-year-old University of Virginia student, disappeared Sept. 13 from downtown Charlottesville. Volunteers searched for weeks before her remains were found Oct. 18 in Albemarle County.
Mark Eggeman, search and rescue coordinator for VDEM, said the department used Virginia Tech’s drone in an area where power lines prevented helicopters from searching. The department doesn’t own a drone and has no plans to purchase one.
“It just really hasn’t come up and it’s one of those things it just depends on the circumstances. It’s not the kind of asset that would be useful in each and every case,” Eggeman said. “It’s still going to take boots on the ground to find somebody.”