More than 300 feet above the polo field at King Family Vineyards, a four-rotor remote-controlled drone cannot see its target.
Positioned a few hundred yards away from a small cabin and armed with a rotating fish-eye camera, it cannot see the man in the front yard holding an assault rifle.
The drone was on a mock mission for the York County Sheriff’s Office at the end of the first week of a unique Piedmont Virginia Community College program to train first responders and search and rescue personnel in the use of drones.
The program, the only one of its kind in Virginia, also is being used as a research tool to determine how drones might be useful to law enforcement and emergency services.
On a rainy Friday morning at King Family, the consensus was that current commercial drone technology is best suited to finding the missing or lost, rather than taking stock of a potentially dangerous situation.
“From the class, the immediate application for the commercial technology, I think, is probably search and rescue,” said Bob Dorsey, a retired government contractor who enrolled in the course on his own. “Law enforcement has some specialized issues they have to deal with, with the ability to see the aircraft and hear the aircraft.”
The class evolved out of a drone hobbyist class set up and taught by Darren Goodbar, the director of aerial services for Draper Aden Associates, and a former government contractor who directed drone flights.
The class, Goodbar said, is as much about discovery as it is about instruction.
“That’s part of it is researching the applicability, what can [the technology] be used for,” Goodbar said. “We’re just not flying around for the fun of it.”
For David King, the owner of King Family Vineyards who has been working with Albemarle County search and rescue to research drone use, the technology is still proving itself.
“Everybody likes it because it’s, ‘wow, I like that,’ it’s cool. But if it’s just looking cool and it’s not really accomplishing anything then there is no point,” he said. “Clearly, there are limitations to the current level of machinery that we have at the current price level that we have expended. That doesn’t mean that there is not something else that might make sense.”
For Jessica Mink, a volunteer with Harrisonburg-based Blue and Gray Search and Rescue Dogs, the unmanned vehicles could save valuable time by easily clearing open but tough to search places.
“Weather is a really big constraint, but they seem to be really good at clearing large fields,” Mink said. “The flight time on the rotors is going to be a big limitation for search and rescue, but you can get a surprising amount by just popping up and coming back down.”
Batteries on the drones are good for between 15 and 20 minutes.
Though drones have been commercially available for several years, use by governments for official purposes is a thorny issue, said Valerie Palamountain, dean of workforce services at PVCC.
Use by a county or city means liability issues and the risk of running afoul of Federal Aviation Administration rules. Before PVCC stepped in, there was no class available on proper drone operation.
Even with the class, there is still not an entity which licenses or certifies drone users, which means localities will have to certify themselves to use drones.
“When we first started doing the research, the FAA was saying that you had to be a licensed pilot [to mitigate liability],” she said. “What we are working on, we are actually working with Virginia Department of Emergency Management and the FAA to take a look at what guidelines really are needed … being able to fly a plane is different than being able to fly an unmanned aerial vehicle.”
In order to use drones locally, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors would need to approve the class as adequate training for police officers and fire-rescue personnel.
“If there are liability issues, then we have to do whatever we can to mitigate the risk,” Palamountain said. “More training means they are more equipped, they are more knowledgeable, they are more capable of using the equipment.”