MIDLOTHIAN — With the theoretical training wheels removed, three members of the Southern Regional Response Group took to the skies over Midlothian in search of a body, bomb and certification.
OK, so the body and bomb were just as theoretical as training wheels attached to a DJI Inspire 1, Mavic or Phantom 4 Pro. The certification, however, was very much real and very much in each of their sights. According to Gene Robinson, referred to as the “grandfather” of UAV flight and owner behind Wimberley-based Drone Pilots, Inc., the three did an “outstanding job” and passed with, literal, flying colors.
Robinson is a former general aviation pilot in the United States Air Force and programmer analyst. His program helps to train law enforcement agencies on the proper techniques of drone search and rescue, FAA regulations and how to work as a team using real-world application.
He previously told the Mirror that the Drone Pilots, Inc. mobile unit spent five years creating a standardized, 100-hour training regimen. The course concludes with a hands-on test — which is what Midlothian Police Support Services Commander Cody McKinney and Midlothian Firefighter Michael Happel recently completed at Mockingbird Nature Park.
“There are little things that will really make you a pro team,” said Robinson as the three completed the identification of a “bomb” hidden within a grove of trees in roughly 45 minutes, “but, overall, I think you all did an outstanding job.”
McKinney explained the trio now has “a basic understanding and a working knowledge of the capability of the drone and the multifaceted ideas and uses for them, so it is not just a hobby."
“We are using these for a purpose. We are using them for search and rescue," he continued. "We are using them to serve the community in case we have a mass causality or a lost child. There are a lot of implementations for this technology and these devices. It is fascinating, to be honest.”
During the field test, the three members of the Southern Regional Response Group (SRRG) had to demonstrate a working knowledge of maintaining a clean and secure cockpit (the area around the landing zone and drone base), utilize in-flight skills, respond to media or law enforcement requests and work together as a cohesive team.
And they had to do so while tasked with completing two objectives that were not given until minutes before takeoff: finding a bomb and body hidden within the park.
In addition to the job at hand, the SRRG was also surprised with an over-anxious sheriff demanding updates, a visit from the FAA, loss of video and an encounter with a low-flying aircraft.
Frank Buell, one of the three from Drone Pilots, Inc. administering the assessment, stated, “This is the ultimate test. Everything that can go wrong will go wrong during this test.”
“You have so many different things going on,” McKinney explained. “Not only are you responsible for flying and keeping the drone in the air but you are also trying to watch the camera and block out any distractions that are outside from people who want to know what is going on. Then you are also in the mindset of ‘I have to find this person’ so there is always a sense of urgency that puts you in a rush but you are also trying to be thorough. I like this practical application because now you can see what it is that you need to work on. Verbal communication is always the biggest thing.”
The Ellis County Sheriff’s Office requested the SRRG to put a drone in the air to locate a 27-year-old male reported missing 24 hours prior near E. Wyatt Street. The male required medication and was believed to be lost or unconscious. He was also last seen walking in “something orange” in a general direction of a finger point to the northwest by Robinson.
After receiving the intelligence, McKinney briefed the team, and the three went to work utilizing the Inspire 1 on a predetermined flight path set by one of the team members en route to the scene using GPS coordinates. The Inspire is the largest of the three aircraft purchased by the Midlothian Police Department using funds largely from obtained through busts or seizures.
A short time after putting the drone into the air, McKinney informed the overbearing sheriff, a role played by Robinson, that the body had been located and that he appeared to be unconscious. McKinney then supplied the exact coordinates for the ground team to recover the individual.
“There were a couple of little odds and ends there, but those will clean up with experience," said Robinson with a thumbs up.
With Happel prepared to man the sticks of the Mavic Pro, the smaller and more nimble of the three MPD drones, the team set out in search of a bomb thought to be at the end of the property located near a scorekeeper’s box.
Approximately 450 feet from the cockpit and 3:42 into the flight, Mckinney noticed “something interesting” just as the Mavic dipped below a tree line and the team lost visual. The team then quickly decided to return to base and switch to the Phantom 4 Pro.
After a brush with a demanding FAA representative, the team identified the bomb roughly 42 minutes into the mission and after just over 11 minutes of flight time. The Phantom returned to the LZ 45 seconds later to a round of “nice job” and “well done.”
“I like the way they teach and they teach real-world applications,” McKinney said. “They have done it. There is not any other teams or organizations that I have found who offer that and they put their name on it with a policy and procedure. They will stand behind you. If you train their way after they teach you their way then they will back you and that’s great.”