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Inside the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office new drone program

Posted at 7:45 PM, Nov 20, 2017
and last updated 2017-11-21 04:24:13-05

They are eyes in the sky, protecting those in trouble and looking to catch those trying to start it.  

The Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office is the only law enforcement agency in Florida with an FAA certified-drone fleet. WPTV headed to a windswept Jupiter Beach to get a look at the program and the people behind it.

The scene is one of humming mechanical birds taking flight with motors no more powerful than the ones running many of your lawn tools. PBSO Capt. Kenneth Voiret  oversees the fleet of nine unmanned vehicles, UAVs or drones as they are commonly called. They are certified for use by the state and FAA. The program got off the ground in 2015.  Two million in state grant money made it happen.

The technology is tethered to its human operators, command pilots in a specially outfitted PBSO van.  

Search and rescue is the focus of the work this day.

Sheriff Ric Bradshaw said, "With the drones, the ability they have to get 50 feet  off the water, and a 50-foot grid search. I mean, we might have had a chance at finding those kids who swamped the boat."  

Bradshaw is talking about Austin and Perry, the teens lost at sea. Their story helped drive the sheriff's push for the drones.  

A marine-based drone that took flight from the beach under watchful eyes can stay aloft for more than four hours.

Its high resolution camera relays what it sees to computer screens being monitored inside that van I mentioned. Think of it as mission control on wheels. The video image is then plotted on a map that can lead rescuers to the spot.  

Bradshaw said, "People that are swept under by undertows, divers out here in distress, people that have boating accidents."

Smaller PBSO drones became the eyes for post-Irma disaster recovery in the Florida Keys.

Voiret said, "We were able to launch our drones and take real time information from miles away and feed it back to the EOC in Monroe County."

There is more. When a criminal ran from Martin County to Palm Beach County early this year, he dumped his car and jumped into nearby water.  He could not elude the "eyes" of a PBSO drone which, with its infrared camera, led deputies right to his hiding place.

The drone technology does raise surveillance worries and I asked Sheriff Bradshaw about that. He said, "There is no surveillance with these drones. They are strictly search and rescue. We do have some we can use in a house if we have a SWAT situation."

He also  sees drones as a must have for big events, where danger can come from any direction.

Bradshaw said, "I think for the safety of events like a SunFest, when you have a large event, when you want to make sure your footprint is expanded for safety."

New threats and new tech to meet them, taking law enforcement to new heights.