The Tuscaloosa County Sheriff's Office has given the Tuscaloosa Police Department its two helicopters as the agency shifts its focus and resources to a new and growing drone program.

Sgt. Eric Bowles, a TCSO deputy who has been involved with the drone program since it began to take off, said six months ago he became the first deputy to receive a Remote Pilot Certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration to pilot drones in the area.

Now, 30 deputies have the same certification, and TCSO has a small fleet of 13 small DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise Advanced drones and two much larger DJI Matrice 300 RTK drones.

"The potential that these drones and this program have to help us on a day-to-day basis -- it's immeasurable," Bowles said Wednesday morning. "We can use these to locate missing children and missing elderly adults and to track wanted suspects, but there will be situations all the time, unexpected situations, where having a drone in the air will be a major help to us."

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The benefits of the switch are vast, Bowles said. Helicopters are expensive to purchase, maintain and store in a hangar. Pilots have to be trained and on-call, ready to take to the skies at any time. Getting deployed and in the air takes a long time, and even if the risk to life and limb for well-trained helicopter pilots is very low, it's a non-zero risk.

Bowles said the cost of drones is almost entirely up-front at the time of purchase. The smaller Mavics can be stored in a small bag and kept in a supervisor's patrol vehicle, ready for rapid deployment as situations warrant, and the unmanned drones can go fearlessly into areas and situations that would put human lives in danger.

"You can't put a price on sending a drone into a situation that could put a law enforcement officer in harm's way," Bowles said. "If we're looking at an armed suspect and the SRT team is on-site -- look, we don't want anybody shooting a drone. They're expensive. But I'd much rather someone shoot at a drone we're flying than at a person."

(Brittany Marshall|Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Brittany Marshall|Tuscaloosa Thread)

The technology at play is also first-rate. The drones have absurdly high-definition cameras that can move freely, zoom in with perfect clarity and cycle between a number of infrared and night vision options to quickly find a person in tricky environments.

Bowles said when he joined the police force, a missing persons case would require dozens of law enforcement officers and volunteers lining up next to one another and performing a slow, methodical grid search of areas of interest. That level of response may still be necessary in some cases, but a drone in the air can cover much more ground in much less time and use cutting-edge technology to locate someone much faster.

All this can be managed and monitored from the drone's controller on the ground or streamed to large-screen monitors in TCSO's new mobile drone command unit, a climate-controlled trailer from which supervisors can oversee one or multiple drones.

The drones can also "lock on" to a person or vehicle and autonomously follow their movements from the air.

The future is bright for the relatively new program, Bowles said, with more equipment and more training on the way. He said TCSO may soon invest in virtual reality goggles that will allow deputies to take a first-person view from a drone's cameras and feel almost as if they are flying themselves.

Stephanie Taylor, a spokesperson for the Tuscaloosa Police Department, said the helicopters TPD received from the sheriff's department leave TPD with four air units to support the efforts of officers on the ground.

"These helicopters, the parts and the equipment will last us for years and of course, our pilots will continue to provide air support to the Sheriff's Office if they never need it," Taylor said. "We use the helicopters as backup on some traffic stops, pursuits and high-risk search warrants. We've used them recently to look for missing persons, to monitor crowds during big events like football games. We always do the annual Christmas shopping season air patrol as well, where they fly over parking lots of shopping areas to watch out for vehicle break-ins and other crimes."

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