Ep. 10 Drones

Appalachian State University Emergency Planner and host Debi Trivette welcomes Appalachian State Police Detective Jason Cornett for a conversation about using drones for emergency management.


Debi Trivette: Hi, thank you very much for joining us today for our tenth podcast episode about Emergency Management at Appalachian State University. I am Debi Trivette, Emergency Planner for Appalachian State University and today we have a special guest, Appalachian State Police Detective Jason Cornett, who will be talking with us about using drones for emergency management. Thank you, Detective Cornett, for joining us today. Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your duties with Appalachian State Police.

Jason Cornett: Debi, I appreciate the opportunity to be here with you and talk to you. This is something I do have a passion for, it kind of snuck up on me about three years ago. I am a career law enforcement officer, been in investigations most of my career between here and Watauga Sheriff's Office so I guess it kind of coincides with what we are talking about today. So, yeah, I've been in law enforcement for about 20 years, I pastor a church, I am a parent. I do have a son that hopefully, plans to attend here next year-so, that's the goal. But, one of my newest, I guess latest passions, has been aviation. I kind of got into that and my wife finally let me pick up a drone. So, I was a hobbyist for about a year. Learned how to fly, how to take videos, take pictures, and that was kind of on the front end, I guess, around 2016. More about the time you started seeing commercial pilots, or piloting, droning coming out to be more prevalent anyway. And then, Part 107, you had to have a certification if you were going to work in law enforcement or if you wanted to work commercially so I challenged the test, passed the test and began flying for myself on a little part-time gig I guess you could call it. Which in turn has allowed me to start flying for emergency management purposes and some of the law enforcement purposes. But it is a unique thing that's up and coming; it is a lot of fun.

DT: All that is great. I know we have been honored to be able to call on you when we've needed some drone assistance in emergency management stuff that has come up. Tell us a little bit about some of the incidents that you've been able to fly for and help out with emergency management.

JC: Absolutely, I think probably what began most prevalent or was the most sought after was video or photographs for weather events. Primarily flooding, that was the big thing that we dealt with in (20)16, 17 around that time , even into (20)18, we kind of here in the high country have at least one flooding event a year it seems like and this was a wonderful way to kind of get the idea of how much damage we were looking at for FEMA or assessment. So, we kind of started to do that first and foremost and then after the University Police Department purchased its own drone, we started doing more search and rescue missions. Jason (Marshburn) and I have been out on a few different things together where it might be in the middle of the night, we might get called out on, you do have to have a special waiver, funny enough, they call it the daylight waiver, but you have to have a daylight waiver to fly at night and we do have that. So, we've done different missions primarily looking for persons. You say, it's at night how are you going to see someone? Well, the drone that we have, primarily the one that we use, we call it APD Air 1, it a Matrice 210, so it's a public safety minded aircraft. You can put up to three different cameras on the device at once, we actually run two. What we currently have is a Zenmuse z30 camera which is a 30 times or 30 by zoom camera so they say that you can somewhat read a tag about a mile away so it's very effective if you can't get close to an object, you still have the ability to zoom into it to see what it is. If we were doing a search mission during the day, we would have a good opportunity to reach out and see the surrounding area that we're looking for. Also, we do have the Zenmuse xt, that's our thermal camera, that's on the device and it does have a 8 by zoom but what's really neat about it, it gives us that thermal ability at night if someone is stranded, if someone has walked away, I know Jason and I worked a mission one night where someone had walked away from a rest home. So, we were using that and we noticed, this is very interesting I wish I had the video from it, we noticed a hot spot in a field not too far away from the house, so we kind of zoomed in on that and we were working in conjunction with a couple of deputies who were going to be walking to, we were leading them to, what we were seeing and we kind of saw something move and we had it set that yellow was out heat signature. Everything else was black or gray around it but we had that yellow signature. It started moving, as they got closer, we could tell something jumped up and had four legs and ran off. So, the deputies that were there were like I see it, I see it, it's a deer. So, part of the yellow signature left but part of it was still behind and they were able to see what it was. It was a mother deer with a fawn laying in the field. So, it shows how well that maybe if a person had been laying down, maybe they didn't know where they were at, they were injured, memory loss, or what have you, it shows the accuracy of the device and how it can be used. So, that was kind of a neat incident to be a part of.

DT: Oh yeah. I remember an incident where we had you flying at Watauga River searching for somebody. And not only were you able to fly the river, you also flew the wooded areas around and I remember a heat source in a laurel thicket, and you were able to pinpoint exactly where that was. It was in a really steep, rocky, laurel terrain but you were able to guide searchers to exactly where that was. So, they are very advanced and help a lot in situations where it would be hard to walk and get to. And time is of essence so when you are able to operate a drone, that's quicker than we can walk or drive and look and you can get to places that we couldn't. Do you see drones be utilized more frequently? Do you see that trend going and maybe advancing?

JC: That's a very good question and I know that there are fads that come through from time to time, but I strongly feel that drones are here to stay. Also talking about search and rescue, these devices are complex devices. They are easy to fly and so once a person gets comfortable with that, they think well this is simple but it's not. There's a lot going on. They are held into place by glonass, which is not only American, if you will, satellites but also international satellites. So, the accuracy is pinpoint; it's very good accuracy. So, if we are looking for someone on a search, we can give coordinates to locations that we need to search more. If we found a person, we can, maybe it's hard to get to, but we can give the coordinates to maybe a K-9 or to other searchers that's on the ground, that's actually going to walk to it. We can give them a pinpoint location to go to. And like you said too, the speed of deployment is amazing. Like, to try to call in a helicopter-that would take an extended amount of time, plus the safety of having someone or persons in the aircraft itself and the cost. So, with our unmanned aircraft, you can do it a lot quicker. We also have a second drone that we're using as well. It's a Maverick 2 Enterprise Dual so it has an abbreviated version of what we have in the big primary craft that we use. Very fast, we can be up and running in less than five minutes, we are ready to go. So, if time is an issue, we can do that. If more so, pinpoint accuracy is an issue, we can do that as well. And as technology advances, there's just so many more uses for 3D mapping, for building construction, which is outside of the scope of what we are talking about here but yeah, I mean they're here to stay. I think what I've seen in different conferences and meetings that I have been to with other law enforcement or emergency management agencies, they are working to put one in each squad car. So, if you have an independent officer out working the case and you really want to get things started, a quick aerial search, maybe you have a toddler or a very young person that maybe walked away, and they can immediately start the search and begin a grid or a spiral search right there. So, there's a lot of options. It's one tool, it's one more tool, that we have that I think is worth every penny and worth investing in. So, I don't think it's gong away soon, I don't think it's going away at all. I think technology is going to push it even further in advancement.

DT: Right. How long do batteries last?

JC: Very good question. That's something I actually wrote down. It varies by device. Of course, our Matrice 210, it's a larger drone, I'd say it runs in the neighborhood of 7,8 maybe up to 10 pounds, depending on how it's outfitted with cameras. That drone actually uses two batteries at the same time. You have a run time of approximately eighteen minutes. You think well, that's not that long but actually, when you are in the air, that's a considerable amount of time. But we do have eight sets of batteries, we do have a charge on hand, so as we use the batteries, we rotate them out and we can stay flying for a long time. Also, to throw in there, there are tethering systems that's out there, we're actually looking into that as well so that can keep you up for an even more extended time because you have a constant battery or constant charge or power source. Now, our smaller drone, being that it's a lighter, smaller form factor, we actually have four batteries for it. Now, the runt time on those are about thirty minutes each.

DT: How much do drones weigh? The two you have-what do they weigh?

JC: I think the first one, the Matrice 210, outfitted I've not weighed it yet, and I would have to look back for specs but I'm thinking it's around seven to ten pounds; and the smaller of the two, the Maverick 2 Enterprise Dual, I think it's more around the one to two pounds.

DT: Does that include the battery weight too?

JC: Yes, including the battery weight, fully outfitted and ready to fly.

DT: So, I remember one of the previous concerts we had at the Holmes Center, I believe that you were able to help us determine when the traffic pattern had gotten to where we could release our security folks and stuff so that's another thing that's helpful for us that the drone is being used for as well as football games. Tell us how we are using them there.

JC: Absolutely, yeah, we got to work at the Kesha Concert. That was one of the first night missions we had specifically here on campus and that was a really good thing for us to be able to see around the building at the same time to be able to see exactly the ingress or the egress of the traffic that was coming out. Not only just the foot traffic, pedestrians that were walking, but also to see where traffic flow is even in the Town of Boone. That zoomable camera really does come into from the stadium area where we use it and then also down at Convocation Center, we are able to actually monitor the Wendy's intersection. So, we can see exactly what's going on. So, if we have a trouble spot somewhere down the way, we're able to deploy vehicles there, police officers for traffic enforcement there.

I love working for our football games because you have such an influx of people. If someone is, all the people that are walking if someone were to fall and get hurt, you can know exactly where they are at, you can monitor the situation visually while officers are enroute. Jason and I like to use what's called DJI Flight Hub and the good thing about that is that it gives us the ability to wirelessly transmit whatever the drone is seeing straight back to our Emergency Operations Center. You get to see real-time what's going on. If there were a fight in the stadium, or a situation in the stadium, a need for emergency help, a need for emergency responders, you can visually see what's going on, capture that, it's literally, and I say this with pun intended, the sky is the limit of what you can do with them.

DT: Wow! Thank you so much for joining us today and telling us about the drones. That's exciting to hear and I'm glad that we have capabilities and resources and we have you helping us to do that. I want to thank you audience for joining us today and please plan to listen to our next episode of the podcast Emergency Management at Appalachian State University. For more information on emergency management related topics and training opportunities, please visit emergency.appstate.edu. Feel free to email questions to safety@appstate.edu. Thank you very much.