GRAND JUNCTION, Colo.—The Mesa County Sheriff's Department has purchased a small drone aircraft for $14,000 to use in investigations and in search and rescue operations.

Sheriff's officers demonstrated the 4-foot-long, 9-pound vehicle Friday. The plane can stay airborne for an hour, fly at an altitude of 400 feet and send video and infrared images to ground controllers.

"If we get the description that (a missing) mountain biker has a red shirt on or a yellow helmet, we can search for the bright yellow, but also if they are somewhat concealed under foliage, we can go to infrared and look for their heat signature," said Ben Miller, who runs the department's remotely piloted aircraft program.

The Mesa County Sheriff's Department is one of three law-enforcement agencies in the U.S. operating unmanned aerial vehicles, sheriff's spokeswoman Heather Benjamin said.

Mesa County authorities are called to an average of 70 rescue attempts a year. Officials said the plane could also be useful for observation during wildfires.

The plane has manual pilot capabilities but is most useful and efficient on autopilot, allowing its operators to type into a computer where they want the plane to fly.

"You tell it where to go, and it will continuously fly over those parameters you set for it," Benjamin said.

The sheriff's department is test-flying the aircraft and expects it will be ready for use within the next couple of months.


Advertisement

Officials say the department has FAA permission to fly the drone anywhere in Mesa County in daylight hours.

The sheriff's department said the technology will not replace any deputies but rather help them work more efficiently.

The department also has a remotely controlled helicopter, but it costs more to fly, cannot stay aloft as long and is more vulnerable to bad weather.