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New police drone could save your life

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Officer Rey Caban spent nearly two years researching the possibility of bringing an unmanned aerial vehicle — a drone — to the Rochester Police Department.

He demonstrated the new UAV last week, providing the first look at a drone of its kind in Minnesota. In fact, there are only three agencies in the U.S., Canada and Australia that have its capabilities, he said.

"Other agencies have drones," Caban said, "but nobody else has the equipment we have, specifically, the Project Lifesaver technology."

The primary mission of Project Lifesaver is to respond quickly to save lives and reduce potential injury for adults and children who wander due to Alzheimer's, autism and other related conditions or disorders. The clients wear a transmitter that is activated when they wander.

As he studied the technology available, Caban was trying to find the most efficient use of the money budgeted by the Rochester City Council.

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"I figured having this unit would also enhance our Project Lifesaver response," he said, "because it had the capability to swap an antenna for the camera."

The antenna, Caban said, "will pick up the radio frequency (of the transmitter). We can see the direction the signal is coming from and use the UAV to get closer and closer, get a stronger signal, then send a ground unit to go to the specific location" to effect a rescue.

His own experiences in law enforcement helped drive his decision to lobby for the unit.

"I've had several different incidents in Rochester where I've requested some kind of aviation support from the (Minnesota State Patrol) to come down and help out," Caban said, only to be told a helicopter was out of position.

"Not having availability, I can understand the frustration it can cause, so I'm excited we can actually deploy someone in a short period of time," he said.

The cost of the drone and its related capabilities sits at about $68,000.

That includes the drone unit itself, the camera with thermal (infrared), night vision and day vision; the PLS antenna and all specific training for Caban, Terry Pretzloff, Dave Thompson and Chris Chamberland.

Because they're operating the UAV for a public agency, the men are all licensed pilots who follow Federal Aviation Administration regulations.

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The cost also takes into account the fact that the unit is made by Lockheed Martin , an international aerospace company. The body is carbon fiber , "very durable and very strong," Caban said.

As a comparison, "other drones fly 15 to 20 minutes, tops. Ours flies 55 minutes, and can fly in inclement weather," he said. "The research that goes into this isn't cheap."

Of course, there will also be law enforcement-specific applications of the drone.

"We treat it like a helicopter," Caban explained. "It flies at the same altitude that a helicopter would in a specific scenario; anything that we'd request a helicopter for is what we'll be using this for."

When the camera is used, it provides just a live-feed video, Caban said; a recorder can be activated to retain video of the feed. Any retained video would be uploaded to the department's server and kept in the records division for a minimum of 90 days or until a case is resolved.

He anticipates the UAV "will get a good amount of use" by other agencies, "once we get people used to knowing we have it."

Any agency's request would have to meet the local policy in place, but if there's "an eminent threat to society or the public," they could deploy the device.

"I'm excited to have this," Caban said, "to potentially save a life — and not just to save the life of someone in immediate danger, but to save officers from confronting an unknown.

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"We've talked a lot about saving lives when it comes to looking for people, but I also look at the difference it'll make to send something like this to get a visual perspective to see if a subject is armed or not," he said.

"It'll take away a lot of stress."

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