When Elgin police crafted an unmanned drone policy for their department earlier this year, a process took place. Meetings were held, drafts were fine-tuned and residents allowed to weigh in during public forums.
As Elgin police officer Matt Udelhoven put it, using a drone isn’t simply learning how to fly the small aircraft. It’s about doing it in a way that the community knows department isn’t doing it without a purpose, he said.
“It’s one thing when the fire department wants (a drone) to check on a fire, it’s another when police want to fly a drone,” Udelhoven said during a drone training session Thursday held by Elgin Community College. “The public immediately thinks, ‘Oh, they want to look through our windows.'”
Udelhoven and two other Elgin police officers conducted the day-long event to help other first-responder and police departments, including those from Huntley, Aurora, Hanover Township and South Elgin, as they begin putting together their own drone policies.
The program was held at ECC’s Center for Emergency Services in Burlington and was the first of its kind for the school, said John Fahy, director of academic programming and public safety training. There may be similar programs offered in the future depending on interest from other groups, he said.
The Elgin officers are instructors with Midwest Aerial Photography, an Elgin company that specializes in aerial photography and drone program training. The college hired the company to conduct its first effort with the still-new technology.
“We value ourselves as a place where first-responders, law enforcement can develop skills, can learn more,” said Fahy about the Burlington center, which opened last year.
Accessing and using drones can be a complex issue for government agencies, said Udelhoven. One of the first reactions from the public is whether the technology will be used to invade their privacy, he said. In order for a drone program to succeed, departments must be as transparent as possible with the residents about what they plan to do with the aircraft.
Regulations from the Federal Aviation Administration and the state place limits on what an agency can and cannot use drones for and there are restrictions on where they can be flown. Emergency and fire departments have more leeway whereas law enforcement must comply with the state’s Freedom from Drone Surveillance Act, which limits usage to incidents of terrorism, missing persons, natural disasters, search warrants, and crime and traffic crash scenes.
The program included indoor and outdoor demonstrations, showcasing what the aircraft can do for first responders.
“(Unmanned drones) are still so new, the process is still kind of gray and muddy,” said Caleb Hanson, deputy chief of Hanover Township Emergency Services.
Hanson and Chief William Burke attended Thursday’s training because the agency is researching whether they need a drone program. It would be particularly helpful in cases of search and rescue, they said.
Udelhoven made the same point. “You don’t have to send 20 officers to find someone in the woods,” he said, which can save agency resources, money and manpower.