It has many important uses.

    When word got out — although it was never a secret — that Polk County had spent $36,000 on a drone, there were questions about why the county needed such an expensive toy.

    But, you’ll come away convinced that it’s not a toy if you spend a few minutes with Jody Beauchane, who is both the county’s Emergency Management director and its Ag and Drainage inspector.
How it came about
    Three units of county government joined forces to put up the money for the drone, which is an DJI Matrice 210 model. Those three divisions were the Emergency Management Department, which is a part of the Sheriff’s Office, at 40 percent; the Public Works Department (Highway Department) at 40 percent, and the Ag & Drainage Department at about 20 percent. Ag & Drainage, which oversees some 135 different drainage systems totaling to over 770 miles in the county, is a part of the Public Works Department.  

    The main use by the Sheriff’s Department is for search and rescue operations. In that role, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office recently assisted the neighboring Clearwater County Sheriff’s Office in tracking down a fleeing suspect who had hid himself in a wooded area.  The standard camera on the drone couldn’t pinpoint the suspect hiding because he hid himself underneath a large root mass that was created from a tipped over tree.  

   But when the thermal camera was mounted on the drone, it was able to pick up on the man’s heat signature that was floating up and around the roots, dirt and tree debris. The thermal camera guided Clearwater County Sheriff’s department officers by radio straight to the suspect’s location to make the arrest.

    The heat sensing system works best when there is a clear temperature disparity between the object being searched for and the outside temperature.  The greater the temperature difference, the better the object will stand out on the drone’s operating screen.

    An important use of the thermal camera, which thankfully hasn’t yet been needed, would be if a small child came up missing or was lost. The camera can be used in the dark of night as well as in daytime.
Highway Department uses
    For the Highway Department, uses include surveying for road projects and the ability to determine number of cubic yards in gravel stockpiles. It can also record video of construction jobsites (both the before and after) to document progress and the thermal camera can be used to document the temperature behind a contractor’s asphalt paving machine to make sure the overlay is laid out in uniform thickness.

    The Highway Department also uses the drone to inspect the expansion plates and girders on the underside of the larger bridges.  This is very useful to bridge inspectors because with the use of the drone they don’t have to set up scaffolding, ladders and safety lines or block traffic during the inspection.  Instead, just fly the drone in, take the pictures and/or record video of the areas that need inspection and fly it back out.  What normally would take a day or more to inspect can now take just a couple hours.
Ditch inspections
    Ag and Drainage Department uses include surveying of the county drainage systems. In the case of the ditch inspections, the drone can be used to video and take pictures of the condition, record bridge and culvert locations and locate ditch blocks.  It’s also used to document the location of brush and cattail stands that will need control measures.

     In the case of a ditch that isn’t easily traveled, the drone can eliminate the need to bring in four-wheelers and trucks that would otherwise be needed to make the inspection. And the inspection can be done in about an hour or so. In the process, the pictures and videos taken can be stored in the ditch files for future reference.

    The drone is also utilized in the Noxious Weed Control Program to record video and take photos of properties that may have a noxious weed infestation issue.
Three cameras
    The drone “package” has three cameras. In addition to the thermal camera as mentioned above are a 30-power zoom camera and the standard 4-power camera. The drone, which weighs 10 pounds, can carry two cameras at a time. In flight, the cameras can be switched back and forth between the two. Depending on the weight of the camera in use, the drone can fly 40 to 50 mph. It can operate in temperatures ranging from minus 4 to 113 degrees Fahrenheit.

    Also a part of the package is equipment that allows for the operation of the drone to be separated between two controllers.  One person can to fly the drone while another person operates the cameras.  This makes for a more the most efficient use of the batteries.  As the county’s unmanned aerial system program develops, the plan is to add the capability to transmit real time video to other sites. For example, that might be to the Emergency Operations Center located in the Law Enforcement Center in Crookston from where it could be relayed to other law enforcement and emergency personnel as needed.
Trained operators
    Beauchane and Chief Deputy Jim Tadman are the lead and most experienced operators. Other county employees who have been trained and are certified by the Federal Aviation Administration to the fly the drone are Brian Hoiseth and Bryce Wilson at the Highway Department, Evan Bruggeman and Levi Webster at the Information Technology Department (they do the technical updates), and deputies Justin Swang, Jim Juve and Sgt. Randy Sondrol.

    So, while it might be fun to fly the drone, there is no reason to call it a toy… certainly not when it is already providing a good return on the investment.

    Thoughts expressed in this column are those of the author and are not necessarily a reflection of the opinions of the other members of the Polk County Board of Commissioners.