Olson hopes to expand police drone usage

By John Guevara

ROCKFORD — On Oct. 7, Jordan Spates, a suspect in the September shooting of Winnebago County Sheriff’s Deputy Stephen Wright, was taken into custody in Lawrenceville, Georgia. The capture involved the Rockford and Atlanta FBI offices, the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Department and the Atlanta Violent Fugitive Unit. The capture occurred 14 days after the shooting and is a testament to law enforcement cooperation.

What if the delay could have been avoided?

Former Winnebago County Forest Preserve President Randy Olson thinks there could be a way to avoid such delays in the future. Olson, a helicopter pilot who regularly flew for the AIR-ONE Emergency Response Coalition, has started a new venture, DRONE-ONE.

Olson says that it took over an hour for the AIR-ONE helicopter to arrive in Winnebago County after it was called to join the manhunt. If one of the local departments had a drone in a squad car, “it could have one (drone) in the air within 15 minutes.”

Olson says the concept for a regional drone program started through conversations he had with Rockford Police Chief Dan O’Shea when O’Shea was still with the Elgin Police Department.

For many years, drones were considered unaffordable luxuries for mid-sized city police departments, seeing action mostly in major markets like New York and Las Vegas. The FAA only recently established rules for drones in June of 2016.

Drone use by law enforcement continues to expand. The Los Angeles Police Commission approved a one-year pilot program for drones this past Monday.

As technology has advanced, costs have decreased, making a regional drone cooperative possible for local law enforcement.

In August of this year, Olson organized his own 501c3, DRONE-ONE. He put his money where his mouth is and donated $15,000 to the organization. DRONE-ONE currently owns four drones, three of which have been transferred to the Rockford Police Department. Officers are currently undergoing pilot training to operate drones.

DRONE-ONE’s focus is to start with accident reconstruction. Currently, it takes hours to reconstruct accidents and take the pictures manually. Traffic is stopped for extended periods, and the personnel costs are high. Olson contends that drones are more time efficient and could have photos taken in about fifteen minutes, including 3D modeling.

Drones are also a more cost-effective option compared to helicopters. Olson says it costs $18 per hour to operate a helicopter plus two pilots. Drones can be operated for $5 per hour. Drones come equipped with infrared cameras and night vision, reducing the reliance on helicopters. “A drone does 90 percent of a helicopters actions,” Olson says.

When asked about utilizing drones in law enforcement, Winnebago County Chairman Frank Haney said, “Although I haven’t researched out its use in other communities, it generally makes sense from a force multiplier and strategy standpoint.”

Winnebago County Sheriff Gary Caruana says that he sees how drones could add to the law enforcement effort.

Olson is attempting to raise $100,000 to supply all of northern Illinois with all the equipment, permits, operating permissions, etc the region would need to be adequately covered by drones. Visit drone-one.org to learn more. R.

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