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Northwest Arkansas police departments find drones useful

by Laurinda Joenks | March 21, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.
Detective Robert Nelson, with the Springdale Police Department, flies Friday, March 19, 2021, a DJIM210 Matrice drone in downtown Springdale. The department has five drones for use in cases of missing persons, crowd control and other activities. Check out and for a photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)

SPRINGDALE -- The police officers determined their shooting suspect was holed up in a house on East Robinson Avenue. While officers waited for the SWAT team, the department's drone team saw the suspect get in a car headed west.

Patrol officers followed directions provided by the drone pilot, stopped the car and arrested the man, said Sgt. Robert Sanchez, operator of the drone.

A popular hobby for many, drones -- or unmanned aircraft systems -- are used by the Springdale Police Department to protect residents and officers, said Lt. Jeff Taylor, a department spokesman.

A drone can cover more ground more quickly than an officer, he said. And the team is learning to operate a drone inside a building, to send it in for a search before sending officers.

Gary Sipes with the Arkansas Association of Chiefs of Police said departments find drones beneficial when seeking missing children or watching drug traffickers.

"Any law enforcement agency that is not involved in a drone program -- or at least looking into it -- is way behind the curve," said Michael Cardone of the World Drone Organization, a group that supports safe and responsible drone use, according to its website. "It's 100% critical -- especially in rural communities. They need it now."

Springdale has invested about $50,000 in its program over two years and boasts four, 2-pound drones -- one for each patrol shift -- and a 14-pound drone that has thermal imaging, spotlights and other tools, Taylor said.

A drone license from the Federal Aviation Administration costs $150. The team has 14 pilots and has spent $2,100 for licensing.

The cost of a drone can be out of reach for small departments, as can the training and licensing, Sipes said. Only a handful of departments in Arkansas own drones, he said.

In addition to Springdale, the Washington County Sheriff's Office and the University of Arkansas Police Department have drone programs, said John Luther, director of Washington County Emergency Management.

The Benton County Sheriff's Office has drones as does the search and rescue department of the county's emergency management program, according to Michael Waddle, director. Rogers Police Department has two drones but doesn't deploy them often, according to Keith Foster, a department spokesman.

Springdale deployed drones 24 times last year and five times this year, Taylor said.

"We have seen an increase in our drone usage probably because the officers have gotten used to using them, and we have trained more officers as pilots, which gives us the ability to utilize them more," Taylor said.


"A drone could help save somebody's life," Cardone insisted. "Any second it's not in the air is wasting time. It's a matter of life and death."

Springdale police last month deployed drones in the search for Donovan Willis, a disabled teenager who fled from his caretaker near the Springdale Country Club.

"We had the drone in the air for quite a while," Sanchez said. "It was a really nice day, and there were a ton of golfers on the course. We didn't know if he had picked up a golf club -- which he did -- so I had to check every person on the golf course."

Officers on ground patrol found Willis unharmed at the First Security Bank in Johnson, across from the country club.

"It's a great, great tool with as many parks and trails as we have," Taylor said.

Local musician Jeff Elmer went missing in February 2020, and police used the drone to search the fields near the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks and the five miles of shoreline around Lake Fayetteville.

"It saved hours upon hours of manpower, especially with the temperature dropping," Taylor said.

Elmer's body was recovered from Lake Fayetteville after a weeklong search.

Waddle said he appreciates the drones in search and rescue operations. "It's nice to have them to search a big field," he said. "It's super easy. I don't have to waste manpower."

Waddle said he also deploys a much smaller drone to look over cliffs and bluffs for someone who might have fallen.

"It's safer than sending an officer over," he said.

Luther said his office worked with several local agencies using drones to monitor traffic flow at the first covid-19 testing sites, looking for ways to improve it. He said the flying tools also help monitor the spread of wildfires.

Springdale police depend on one pilot and one spotter whenever the department deploys a drone, Sanchez said. The pilot watches the screen for its content, and the spotter keeps the drone in sight, watching for trees, power lines and other drones.

Police must contact the air traffic control tower at the local airport before launching a drone to fly at 400 feet, the limit allowed by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Sanchez said he's never flown above 200 feet in town.

A one-story building is about 10 feet high, said Mike Chamlee, director of the city's Building Department. He noted that Arkansas Children's Northwest hospital is five stories tall.


Springdale has found the drones helpful in keeping watch over large crowds, Sanchez said.

The drones were deployed last summer when thousands of people gathered on the Fayetteville square, protesting the death of George Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police.

"They were invaluable to the command staff," Sanchez said. "They were able to show the footage on a big screen TV outside of the command truck."

Luther agreed. "When a decision needed to be made, everyone could see what was going on in real time," he said. "They all had the same visual."

The commanders would note the crowd moving in a certain direction and send officers on the ground in that direction before the crowd arrived, Sanchez said.

"The drones let us use less guys," Taylor said. "Even with 400 officers, they couldn't see everything going on."

"We could zoom in and read signs, read what it said on their shirts," Sanchez continued. "We could get a great physical description."

Police can zoom into a crowd if they are looking for a certain person, someone fitting a description or weapons, Taylor added.

The drone's driver noticed someone digging in a car's trunk near the protest.

"We could zoom in and see what was in his trunk that he was digging for," Sanchez said.

Cardone noted drones come with strict guidelines regarding privacy that every police operator should know.

"The FAA has a high standard for our pilots, so ongoing training and testing are required, plus documentation of flights," Taylor said. "And we continue to educate the public on their operational importance and value.

"It's a lot safer and cheaper than a helicopter."

Sipes said the good outweighs the bad when judging use of drones by police agencies.

"There's always going to be that complaint," he said.

"It's not Big Brother," Taylor said. "It's for the safety of the residents and our officers."

865,660 — Drones registered

372,281 — Commercial drones

493,379 — Recreational drones

217,672 — Remote Pilots Certified

Source: Federal Aviation Administration, March 15


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