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By Chris Bieri, Published March 03 2012

Grand Forks Sheriff's Department to begin using drones

GRAND FORKS – The Grand Forks Sheriff’s Department is about to start investigating in rarified air.

The department will be one of just seven law enforcement offices nationwide developing an unmanned aircraft systems program, according to Special Deputy Al Frazier.

For more than a year, in conjunction with the UND Aerospace UAS program, the sheriff’s department has had the system in the works. In May, once given full clearance by the Federal Aviation Association, that system is expected to be fully functioning.

The department will initially have two airframes – a Draganflyer helicopter and a Raven B plane – at its disposal on sub-lease from UND for $1 a year, according to Sheriff Bob Rost.

“I think we’re on the cutting edge of technology here,” Rost said. “We’ve got somebody like Al Frazier, who is at the front of the field. This is something that is going to be used a lot because we are so rural. There are areas you can’t get into with a car; this thing can fly over and do whatever it has to do.”

Both aircrafts are remotely operated, powered by rechargeable batteries, and have both photo and video capabilities.

And both are about the size of remote-controlled planes flown by hobbyists. The Draganflyer is about 3 feet by 3 feet and weighs less than 2.6 pounds. The Raven B is 3 feet long with a 4.5 foot wingspan and weighs in at 4.2 pounds.

Not only will the program be the only one of its kind in North Dakota, it will be unique to the upper Midwest.

Frazier, who is also an assistant professor in UND’s aviation department, said that only two law enforcement agencies have had active flights with UAS, which have been used by armed services for years.

Frazier said the Mesa (Colo.) County Sheriff’s Department has had about a half-dozen deployments and the Texas Department of Public Safety has had three to four.

“We should be the third agency to use them operationally,” Frazier said.

The program started in 2009 when Frazier, who was in law enforcement in California for 28 years, proposed getting a manned aircraft local law enforcement could use.

“There are over 70,000 state and local agencies and less than 400 have dedicated manned air support units,” Frazier said.

The cost of such an aircraft was too high, but he started investigating the possible use of unmanned aircrafts. The partnership with UND, which has had its UAS program for five years, was a natural fit.

Unmanned aircraft can be used for search and rescue, crime scene and traffic photography and standoff situations. They’ve already been used to provide state and local officials with video of difficult to access areas during spring floods.

Bieri is a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald