The Stearns County Sheriff's Office is the latest law enforcement agency in Minnesota to deploy drones to help track fleeing suspects or missing people.
The county purchased the drone earlier this year and has already used it to find a domestic assault suspect who fled through some bushes and a driver who tried to escape authorities by darting into a farm field.
"We can get up in the air in a matter of minutes," said Lt. Robert Dickhaus, who oversees the team that uses the drone. "It's been very reliable. Hopefully it's a tool we can use for years to come."
Several other law enforcement agencies in Minnesota also use drones, including the Hennepin County and Dakota County sheriff's offices. The state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the FAA, however, don't track how many agencies have them.
Drones have been controversial elsewhere due to concerns about the threat to privacy, but in Minnesota, leaders of law enforcement agencies have repeatedly said the technology won't be used for surveillance.
In Stearns County, Dickhaus said the drone is only going where law enforcement would already be working a scene involving, for example, a search for a fleeing suspect or a report of a missing child. In some cases, he added, authorities would need to get a search warrant, much like they would in other police searches.
"I think they were skeptical of it at first," Dickhaus said of county leaders when he approached them with the idea of buying it. "It's new technology."
The county bought the drone, a DJI Inspire 1 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, last January for about $12,000 — most of which went to the attached heat-sensitive camera used for night searches. The drone also has a camera for daytime searches, and the images can be recorded and used later for prosecution, if needed.
The drone, which is battery operated, can rise as high as 400 feet and has a range of about a mile. The Sheriff's Office received a certificate from the FAA to operate the drone and has trained eight deputies to operate it. The department has already used it during SWAT team investigations, flying it overhead to film what officers are doing on the ground, Dickhaus said.
In June, deputies used the drone to help Cold Spring and Richmond police track down a suspect who had fled a traffic stop after assaulting a woman; it was dark and nearly 3 a.m. when the drone flew overhead and spotted the suspect within minutes hiding in brush. He was arrested without incident.
A month later, a driver raced into a bean field to escape a state trooper. A nearby Stearns County deputy offered to help and deployed the drone, which directed officers to the suspect's location.
Earlier this year, St. Cloud police paid about $13,000 for a drone to help map three-dimensional major crime and accident scenes. So far, they've used it 15 times to track down suspects, search for missing people, help other agencies and perform rescues, Lt. Martin Sayre said.
The Stearns County Sheriff's Office has also used its drone and its heat-sensitive camera to help firefighters detect heat spots and survey tornado damage.
Dickhaus said he would also like to use the drone to help locate missing people, such as the 2-year-old who recently wandered away from his home in rural central Minnesota. The child was spotted on the State Patrol aircraft's heat-sensitive device before the county could use its drone. But Dickhaus said the drone, stored in the back of a squad car, is ready to be deployed again.
"We don't fly it for just no reason," he said. "It's another eye in the sky."