Eye in the sky: Drones have become a useful tool for Douglasville Police

Douglasville Police Capt. Ashley Sanders holds one of the department’s four drones. DPD has been using drones to assist in various situations like searching for missing persons and fleeing suspects.

Drones are quickly becoming a useful tool in helping with public safety.

From law enforcement agencies to fire departments, public safety officials are using drones to keep themselves safe and to help solve cases.

The Douglasville Police Drone Division has used drones to search for missing persons and fleeing suspects.

Drones have even helped avoid confrontations that almost certainly would have ended violently, said Douglasville Police Capt. Ashley Sanders, who is a member of the department’s five-person Drone Division.

The department started its drone program about four years ago, Sanders said.

“It has been great for us,” he said.

Sanders said the department has used drones in tactical situations that have helped keep its officers out of harm’s way.

About a month ago, a suspect involved in a carjacking had barricaded himself alone in a house and the police department was able to send in a drone to find the man in the house before sending its S.W.A.T. Team in.

“It works great if we can isolate a suspect,” Sanders said. “We are able to see if they have a weapon and what type of weapon. It is great for the safety of our officers.”

DPD, which currently has four drones, has a certificate of authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly in class G air space, non-controlled airspace, under 400 feet about ground level.

Additionally, the officers on the drone unit have certificates to fly the drones through the FAA, and Sanders said he is working on earning a commercial drone certificate.

The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office also has a drone.

Douglas County Fire Chief Roderick Jolivette said he is looking into getting authorization to purchase one for his department. Currently, the fire department has agreements with the Douglasville Police Department and the Cobb County arson unit to use their drones if needed.

“It would be a great tool for us,” Jolivette said.

Sanders gave a presentation earlier this month on DPD’s use of drones to the Rotary Club in his hometown of Bremen.

The drone operations are always performed by a team, one pilot and one lookout who is constantly watching for other aircraft, Sanders told the Bremen Rotarians. He said DPD has had to land the drone when a low-flying helicopter has appeared to avoid causing an accident.

The main limitation of the drones is battery life, Sanders said. The large drone he brought to the Bremen Rotary Club has a battery life of about 30 minutes.

When it gets to 10% charge, the drone will automatically return to the place where it took off. That’s one reason the police department has more than one drone, Sanders said. The drones can also be affected by weather such as high winds and they are not waterproof, so rain can damage them.

While drones can be an asset, they’re is also the concern that they can contribute to a loss of personal privacy.

“We’ve never used these things to spy on people,” Sanders said.

The police department has a strict policy on

the use of the drones,

he said.

The drones also have been used to create accident reconstructions by making a pictorial map of the accident scene, and to survey above crowds to see if there is anything violent or illegal happening within the crowd, he said.

Pictures taken from a drone can be used in a court for evidence, Sanders said.

The drones can cost thousands of dollars — the one he brought for the demonstration in Bremen cost about $8,000 — and the cameras are an additional expense. The heat-detecting camera on the drone cost another roughly $10,000, he said. They can also be equipped with speakers and spotlights.

“It has been really successful for us; it’s expensive but we’ve done a lot with it,” Sanders said.

While drones have become more popular with law enforcement, the Douglasville Police were one of the first to institute it in their procedures.

Sanders said the Drone Division trains monthly with the drones in recreating all types of situations, with the goal always being a peaceful outcome.

“It’s a very expensive investment,” he said. “But when we’ve got somebody in the woods — it could be a suspect, a dangerous suspect, could be a lost child or somebody with dementia or diminished mental capacity has wandered off. We’ve used it for that many, many times.”

Laura Camper, editor of the Gateway-Beacon in Haralson County, contributed to this article.