drone3By Gordon Anderson

Back in March, while investigators with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office had a suspect in custody in connection with the murder of an 80-year-old woman in her home off Lower Moncure Road, a small drone was flying over downtown Sanford.

That drone — a Yuneec model H520 purchased by the sheriff’s office earlier this year for around $8,000 — was busy doing the work that other investigators would normally be responsible in a situation like that, namely confirming many details of the suspect’s story.

“There was some evidence disposed of near downtown,” said Det. Steve Freeman, one of two member’s of the sheriff’s team who is trained to use the drone. “Previously, we would have had to use Google Maps or call someone from the SBI to bring a helicopter in. This is an easier alternative, and we can get access to it a lot quicker than a helicopter.”

drone2While Freeman and Det. Bill Marcum, the other deputy licensed to fly the drone, couldn’t get into the specifics of the case as the outcome remains pending, they both said having the drone was an enormous advantage in a case that might otherwise have proven difficult for any number of reasons.

“I think of it as a force multiplier,” Marcum said, using the military term that describes, well, how force multiplies when various combinations of weapons come into play. “If we have to go up on a rooftop to look for an item or piece of evidence, that can take time and manpower. With the drone, we can set it up and send it into the air in a matter of minutes.”

The use of advanced technology like the Yuneec H520 isn’t limited to the sheriff’s office. Lee County Emergency Management has a similar drone, as well as remote tethered underwater vehicle — essentially a little submarine — that can be used for all kinds of search and rescue functions.

Just over a month ago, the department assisted others in locating the body of a teenager who had drowned in the Eno River Rock Quarry in Orange County. The remote tethered underwater vehicle is able to replace a diver and, with its sonar capabilities, able to see in conditions that a human just wouldn’t be able to.

“Even though it’s housed in Lee County and we own it, we could get a call from another county, places like Anson County or Gaston County, and we can be an asset to them when they have an operation going,” said Emergency Management Director Shane Seagroves.

Seagroves said Lee County came into possession of the remote tethered underwater vehicle — a Deep Trekker DTX2 — in a somewhat unusual fashion. Lee County is part of what’s called a Domestic Preparedness Region (DPR) consisting of several other counties. Each DPR in the state gets funding from the federal Department of Homeland Security, which is then divided evenly between the member counties. Often, each county uses its allocation for a specific need, but in this case each of the region’s counties agreed that spending the roughly $100,000 on the Deep Trekker, as well as a smaller version, would be worth the expense.

“We wrote (the grant) as a proposal for our whole region,” Seagroves said. “Diving is probably one of the most dangerous operations a firefighter or rescue personnel do. You’re putting people below the surface, often in what we call black water, where there’s zero visibility. The Sherrill’s Ford Fire Department lost a firefighter in a dive operation just a week prior to our presentation to our DPR group, and (the vote on the underwater vehicle) was a unanimous decision.”

For the sheriff’s office, while the drone is a great tool that allows for amplification of manpower and visual cataloging of an entire investigative process, there have been steps taken to ensure that it is used in ways that limit potential for privacy invasions.

For example, uses outside specific “predetermined categories” including lost persons, fires, and rescue have to be approved on a case-by-case basis by Seagroves. Drones operating at night must be lit, operators are required to keep the vehicles in their sight at all times, and every flight has to be followed by a detailed flight report.

“This isn’t something that can see through walls,” Marcum explained. “But in something like a hostage situation, or a missing person – being able to use Google Maps is great, but there’s nothing like being able to see what the situation on the ground actually looks like.”