WHITESTOWN — Unmanned aerial systems remain at the cutting edge, employing technology that only five or 10 years ago would have been considered the stuff of science fiction movies. But law enforcers and first responders are learning how to engage this technology to do everything from getting needed information to make emergency rescues to tracking armed and desperate criminals thanks in large part to the state’s Preparedness Training Center in Whitestown.
The Training Center has been developing and hosting its courses in unmanned aerial systems, also known as drones, since September 2017, state officials said. Last month, the center graduated its 500th student.
The Preparedness Center hosts four different courses throughout the year, all developed in-house with experts from across the state, officials said.
“Drone technology has just increased exponentially since it started. I remember a couple years ago, my children had these little things they were flying around in the house and I thought that was great. And now, there’s technology out there with cameras that see heat signatures in the woods and flare cameras,” said Bob Stallman, assistant director the Training Center.
“It’s just amazing how far we’ve come in a short period of time. I just can’t imagine where we’re going to be five or ten years from now.”
Officials said they expect to increase training output going forward, with hundreds more students expected through the next year.
The Training Center offers four courses: an awareness workshop, for agencies that are simply curious about drones; a Part 107 Preparation Course, which is required by the Federal Aviation Administration for all pilots; the basic operator course; and the advanced operator course.
This week, the Center hosted 12 students from agencies across the state in the basic operator course. They are expecting to hold three more basic operator courses this summer. This week’s class includes students from the Manlius Police Department, the Oswego County Sheriff’s Office and the state police.
“It’s just another tool in the toolbox. It can do mapping, it can serve a lot of different functions,” said Lt. Frank Carbone, a drone instructor with the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
“It can be put into the air. It can assist us in search and rescue. It can deliver safety equipment. We can use it for a variety of different missions.”
Students of the basic operator course learn to fly in the big, open spaces at the Training Center. They learn stick and motor skills, GPS control, take-offs and landings, and what to do if the drone starts breaking down and needs to make an emergency landing.
They are trained on drones both big and small. The drones can range in price from $3,000 for a small, basic drone to $30,000 for a larger drone with a full compliment of equipment. The drones can fly at about 40 mph, with the largest drones capable of carrying around 15 pounds.
“In the field we’re in, we’re put into a place where we may not be flying in a big open area and we need to know how to deal with emergencies and deal with the equipment and operate them the proper way so that we can operate safely,” Carbone stated.
“Yes, anybody could take the aircraft up and put it up, and if something went wrong, it might just fly away. And then we have an issue where it might fly into an airport area or fly into a manned aircraft, fly into people, fly into buildings; we’re hoping that, through this training that we provide here, that the members that fly these drones for the various agencies can handle anything that comes their way.”
Sgt. Greg Snyder, with the Manlius Police Department in Onondaga County, said his agency has been looking into drones for the past year. They recently bought their first drone and set up a unit of four officers. Snyder said they’ve been using their drone to take crime scene photographs, and it can also be used in accident reconstruction and crowd control.
“They’re fun, but the reality is, for us, there’s enough liability and responsibility that goes along with it, that you’re pretty focused on what you’re doing,” Snyder said about the training.
“So, especially from the job point of it, it’s nerve-wracking enough that it’s fun, but it definitely keeps you focused on what you’re doing.”
The Rome Police Department has their own drone program and unit, and they received their initial training through a partnership with NUAIR at the Griffiss International Airport. Police officials said they are looking into signing up for the Training Center’s drone training — though there is a long waiting list.