Orange Township to test drones as extra eyes in the sky during emergencies

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Within seconds of the burglar alarm going off, a drone is airborne, arriving 90 seconds before the first police car.

The incident two weeks ago was part of a trial project in suburban Houston to determine whether real-time video is useful to police and firefighters on the ground.

Starting next month, firefighters in southern Delaware County will be watching their own emergencies from the sky. Orange Township trustees agreed to pay Paladin Drones $10,000 to have a drone respond to crashes, water rescues, fires and other emergencies.

In the Houston run, police used phones and computers to watch what the drone transmitted as it circled the scene. Seeing no evidence of intruders, they scaled back their response and determined that it was a false alarm.

Heavily populated Orange Township has many false alarms, but for this three-month project only firefighters, not police, will have the drone’s help.

Divyaditya “Divy” Shrivastava, who attended Olentangy Local schools, is co-owner of San Francisco-based Paladin. He said he wants to learn whether firefighters see value in the extra set of eyes. Results also will help the Federal Aviation Administration determine whether the company will be granted waivers to fly autonomously. Until then, a licensed drone pilot will work 40 hours a week as a backup.

When the $23,000 drone and camera takes flight next month, proprietary software will link it to the county’s 911 call center. The drone automatically will be sent coordinates to the emergency scene, where it will circle for several minutes before returning, said Shrivastava.

“Our biggest goal as a company is to prove that while these drones are most-valuable for emergencies, they are also useful on a daily basis,” he said. “We want to prove the concept and prove that it’s useful 90 percent of the time.”

“It’s kind of cool,” said Patrick Brandt, director of Delaware County Emergency Communications. “For a quick visual inspection of an area, or a rooftop, there is nothing quicker.”

Flying at up to 45 mph, as high as 200 feet, the drones have an outer limit of about five miles, or about 25 minutes. Most trips will be shorter, he said.

Shrivastava got the idea three years ago when a friend’s house caught fire. He heard firefighters complain about delays due to a wrong address.

Genoa Fire Chief Gary Honeycutt said drones could become more useful as technology improves, noting that fire departments respond mostly to medical emergencies, not fires.

A drone likely would not have helped in the response to the deaths of four people from carbon monoxide poisoning in March, he said.

“What you see from the outside is completely different from what’s inside. There’s no telltale signs from the exterior,” Honeycutt said of such an incident.

But could drones one day replace helicopters, essentially providing the same oversight at a small fraction of the cost?

The Columbus police helicopter unit was trained and licensed to fly drones two years ago. But no equipment was purchased, said Sgt. James Shivers.

Commander Robert Strausbaugh said the project was put on hold but still is being considered. He said it might supplement, not replace, a $3.5 million helicopter.

Powell police and Franklin County sheriff’s office use drones, but not autonomously. The Delaware County sheriff’s office is in discussion to purchase one.

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@DeanNarciso