Officials from Warren County, N.J., are getting the latest training in drone use from Warren County Community College’s acclaimed drone education program, expecting to experiment with the technology in county functions ranging from engineering to forest fire management and criminal investigations – and eventually make it a key part of operations.
“This is a first step, but we think it will put us in a position to be a leader in the country in use of drones at the local government level,” said County Administrator Alex Lazorisak. “We know they can be used in a growing number of county operations and become a key part of how we serve the public.”
One focus will be utilizing drones in critical law enforcement and emergency services tasks such as search and rescue, hazardous waste, forest fire management and criminal investigations, according to Frank Wheatley, county public safety director and emergency management coordinator.
“There are so many applications that I can foresee our team expanding in the future to include other county departments such as engineering and planning,” Wheatley said, noting that eight representatives of various county departments are involved in the initial training. “I think that they will be effective in a host of scenarios – both non-emergency and emergency – from hazardous materials incidents to flooding on the Delaware River and lost hikers on the Appalachian Trail.
Lazorisak says the initial group will explore how drones can be used in various county departments, but he foresees having staff and a department eventually dedicated to drone technology. The rural county, directly west of New York city, has about 110,000 residents
“Drone use is inevitable, and we have one of the best facilities for training in the country right here in this county. It made sense to begin to find ways to train our staff and find ways to utilize the technology,” Lazorisak said.
Warren County Community College is leading the country in drone curriculum development through three flight and maintenance degrees and is quickly gaining rare Federal Aviation Administration approvals for critical new approaches to drone use such as flying above populated areas and out of sight of the pilot. It has also developed a multi-faceted collaboration with Embry–Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, one of the nation’s top aeronautics colleges, and is leading a network of drone training programs nationwide to standardize academics, get federal support for education in the field and be a voice for the industry.
Warren also is working with farmers and other businesses in the county to make drone use accessible and is linking with local high schools to pave the way for students to gain experience with drones in their schools and then potentially matriculate to Warren. Recently, Warren’s drone program received a Congressional Appropriation to add precision agriculture to its offerings.
“This is another one of the collaborations we are developing as the use of drones explodes and we begin to see the ways they can make our lives safer and easier and our work more efficient,” said Warren Community College President Will Austin.
“It benefits the county officials who can access our expanding training, equipment, and facilities and it gives us insight into the specific work these county officials do and how the technology can be applied.”
He said, for instance, drone use can be applied to an existing county system for searching for missing persons using first-hand knowledge about how the professionals in the field operate combined with Warren’s drone expertise.
“Criminal investigation work or the efforts to apprehend a suspect could be aided by drones – and having folks from the prosecutor’s office participating in our training will help us develop and fine tune ways we educate people in law enforcement or those planning such a career,” Austin said.
Austin notes that Embry-Riddle drone professionals recently were called into help with the mapping and photography of a murder scene and the identification of evidence. Three officers from the police department on the ground working for three hours collected 120 data points while the Embry-Riddle team gathered two million in 20 minutes with drones. Austin expects that these same Embry-Riddle faculty will assist Warren in helping to train local law enforcement.
In another tactic to get these robotic systems into the hands of local residents, Warren County farmers have learned they can survey their fields and check on crop health and moisture levels in an hour – work that could have taken them a day or two. More artificial intelligence equipment is forthcoming that will allow local farmers to monitor their crops, soil, and livestock from their phones connected to the internet.
“The county and our business community are going to find ways that drones can make the work in many departments and businesses more accurate and more efficient. So much of the work of the county with land use and crime and emergency services will be aided by un-piloted aircraft” Austin said. “This is just the beginning.”
Lazorisak agrees, noting that this first group of employees will work within their departments but also help the county explore other ways drones could be deployed. He envisions the county soon will own drones and have staff dedicated to their use.