There’s a new watcher overhead: Sheriff’s office flies drone with video camera

The Tulare County Sheriff’s Office has purchased a drone equipped with an eye-in-the-sky camera for overhead surveillance of crime scenes.

Officials said they believe the department is the first law enforcement agency in the Valley to have one of the devices, also called an unmanned aerial vehicle.

Sgt. Kevin Kemmerling and William Seymour, the tactical air operations officer at the air support unit, demonstrated it Wednesday.

“This is incredible technology for the Sheriff’s Office,” Kemmerling said. “It will save the county and the taxpayers so much money.”

So far, the device is being used only for training and has yet to be used for an actual incident.

It’s new technology for law enforcement, so policies and procedures have been prepared to guide how the Sheriff’s Office will use it, Kemmerling said.

“We’re not going to be doing random surveillance of people,” he said. “It will be a mission-specific tool to be brought out on request by patrol or investigative units.”

The unit is a quadcopter with four rotors. It is similar in appearance to consumer models, but it cost $8,000 and is designed for serious use.

The device has a lens that can give officers on the ground a real-time video image of what is happening below the drone.

“One of the main uses is for high-risk situations” such as someone barricaded in a home, Kemmerling said. “We could bring the drone. It allows us to get a bird’s-eye view and see more of what’s going on without having to put somebody in danger.”

Other uses include search and rescue, documenting natural or man-made disasters, active shooter incidents, searching for a suspect, SWAT call-outs, high-risk search warrants, crowd monitoring and explosive-device inspection, the Sheriff’s Office said.

Kemmerling expects it to be used a lot to document crime scenes.

The department purchased the drone in March. At that time in California, only Alameda and Ventura counties had one, Kemmerling said.

“This technological advancement supports the vision of the sheriff by improving the Sheriff’s Office’s ability to efficiently and effectively enforce the law, protect lives and save valuable resources in time, personnel and money,” the Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.

Since June, four officers have been training on it weekly.

The operator holds the controller and watches the drone, which can travel about a mile and half away.

He also can watch a video screen showing what the camera detects. The video image can be sent to other screens, such as at a command center.

The drone operates on batteries that are good for an hour or longer. If the battery runs low, the drone “boomerangs” – automatically returns to the base.

The drone must be operated under FAA regulations adopted in August, which allow drones to go as high as 400 feet off the ground. The device the Sheriff’s Office bought can reach 2,000 feet.

Currently, the camera lens is fixed. Kemmerling said he expects the department will get a zoom lens and infrared gear for night use.

Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold