Sheriff's Commander Chris Dunn Explains
Department's Unmanned Aviation System
Addressing Rotary Ventura South members and guests on Monday, June 20, was Ventura County Sheriff's Department Commander Chris Dunn. He provided a fascinating insight into one of the Department's newest tools: the Unmanned Aviation System, a small fleet of remote-controlled quad-rotor aircraft that deputies are using for a variety of public safety functions.
"We don't refer to them as drones," said Commander Dunn. "That tends to make people think of full-size aircraft, operated from thousands of miles away, firing missiles and dropping bombs on military targets." Instead, he explained, the Department's unmanned aircraft look much like the units that the average hobbyist can purchase at Best Buy or similar stores: about five-and-a-half pounds and 18 inches square. However,  appearance is pretty much where the similarities end.
The units used by the Sheriff's Department have sophisticated camera systems; three to be exact. One is forward-facing and provides a pilot's eye view to the operator on the ground. Another is a high-definition camera facing downward for surveillance, and the third picks up heat signals, which can be very helpful in search-and-rescue operations in remote territory. Other uses of the aircraft include SWAT support, crime scene processing, and assessment of potentially dangerous situations before deputies are sent into harm's way.
Commander Dunn pointed out that use of the aircraft is subject to Constitutional law, just like any other aspect of law enforcement. "We need a search warrant before we can fly over private property for investigation," he said. Additionally, the unmanned aircraft (and their operators) are governed by stringent regulations of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
At $65,000 each, the units may seem to be on the pricey side at first glance. However, Commander Dunn noted that a standard manned Huey helicopter costs $1,400 to $1,800 per hour to operate, whereas the unmanned aircraft cost virtually nothing beyond staff time. The Ventura County Sheriff's Department was the first law enforcement agency on the west coast to implement an Unmanned Aviation System, and the current program serves as an FAA-approved model for other agencies to emulate.