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4-H drone discovery
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Could technology change the way law enforcement uses force?

Most of what I know about drones came from an episode of The Big Bang Theory. On the show, the friends turn in circles to calibrate a drone before it eventually gets a mind of its own and flies all over the apartment knocking things over.

If you’re like me, you haven’t thought about drones as much more than toys.

Following Hurricane Matthew, I eagerly watched footage shot from drones over Tybee and Jekyll islands to see if I could spot our 4-H centers. Preparing for 4-H National Youth Science Day, I read about farmers scouting crops, linemen using drones to inspect electric lines, filmmakers getting cool angles and park rangers surveying forest fires.

That’s all very interesting, but I wasn’t excited.

That was before Corporal Tony Howard of the Newton County Sheriff’s Department came to visit our 4-H Drone Discovery Day this week. I thought I knew what to expect: he’d fly the drones around, and we’d hear how he used them to assist with investigations and standoffs.

Howard said he was so confident of the impact of drones on law enforcement that he personally purchased the first two used to assist the sheriff’s department. He told the 4-H’ers about using them to survey property before a SWAT raid, keeping officers out of the line of fire.

But Howard didn’t just buy a drone. He continually practices and looks for ways to improve them. He modified one to fly indoors. While visiting the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) offices recently, he even had the chance to demonstrate their functionality for a regional supervisor.

But these aren’t things that happen every day in Newton County, right?

No, said Howard, but things like missing persons investigations happen much more frequently. Children get lost. Adults with medical conditions like dementia wander away. Just in the last few weeks a young woman disappeared while fishing at Factory Shoals.

In fact, Newton County SWAT assists neighboring counties, so if we ever had an emergency at Rock Eagle 4-H Center in Eatonton, Howard might be the one coming to our rescue.

In many of these cases, the camera and heat sensors on one of the NCSD drones can help locate the missing person in a fraction of the time needed for a search with people. In the Factory Shoals case, unfortunately, the woman’s body was pinned under a boulder which also emitted heat, but otherwise, the drone can detect a submerged body.

This alone had me pretty excited. The hours saved in the search not only help the budget on countless manpower hours but most importantly save time when every minute and every second may count for a person’s health.

But this was still only the start.

Howard told us about other uses of drones in law enforcement, and the various functions that can be added to a drone. In addition to just looking around, drones can be used to carry objects, open things, or any number of tasks.

What if a drone could monitor a crowd from above, helping identify problems before they spread? What if a patrolman had a drone in his or her car? You go on what seems like a routine call, but as Howard described it, “the hair stands up on the back of your neck.”

Normally, the officer might call for backup, but in the end, someone will have to exit the car to assess the situation and may have to make a split-second decision as to how to respond. But if the patrolman had a drone that could be deployed from the window of her car, she could remain in the safety of the vehicle as she gathers information and assesses the risk. She might interact with other people through the drone.

Instead of a split second decision, what if the drone added time and information for that officer to decide how to respond, while also keeping her safe?

Everyone told me Howard was excited about drones. I’m thankful he was willing to share that excitement with Newton 4-H’ers. I could already see the wheels turning in their heads, as some of them imagined how they’ll make a difference like Howard one day.

Terri Fullerton is a County Extension Agent in 4-H Youth with University of Georgia Cooperative Extension.