DRONING ON AND ON: Police department utilizes drones to conduct missions

Keri Thornton | Daily Press

Tahlequah Police Officer Cory Keele is certified and licensed to fly drones for the department.

The Tahlequah Police Department is getting ready to utilize drones that can assist with various types of calls.

Police Chief Nate King ordered two drones for the department to use while conducting day-to-day operations.

“We’re going to order one for outside flying and one that is much smaller to fly inside buildings, in case we need it,” said King.

Officer Cory Keele became a certified pilot and King said several other officers expressed interest in participating in the program.

“We took the steps to be able to be authorized, basically to train our own pilots, and we obtained a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) through the [Federal Aviation Administration],” said King. “We come up with our own training and testing program for piloting the drones and we can self-certify officers.”

Keele spent a lot of time reading and researching before he became certified. He learned about the Sectional Aeronautical Chart – a map that shows geographical and manmade obstacles, airspace boundaries, and other information.

“You have to know how high you can fly and how to read METAR, which is a really complicated weather report that’s all in coding because you have to be able to read the weather codes,” said Keele.

Obtaining a license to fly a drone is similar to what pilots have to do to fly an aircraft.

“It was a difficult test overall, but it was pretty easy to get through it after watching videos and speaking with some guys at Cherokee Nation who fly drones,” said Keele.

Not everyone who wishes to fly a drone has to be licensed. According to the FAA, there is limited statutory exception for those who fly a drone for recreational purposes.

Each drone that weighs more than .55 pounds is to have a current registration mark and the pilot must carry proof of registration.

“You have to register the drone with the FAA so if an incident happens and it crashes into someone or – God forbid – it crashes into a plane or an aircraft, you can report it,” said Keele.

Every officer will fly under Keele’s license during training, and the COA covers TPD for several missions.

“If we’re going to do intel, chase someone, or take pictures of accidents, anything we do within our business, we’re covered under the COA,” he said.

Once both drones are delivered to TPD, Keele will teach a class to officers on everything he has learned to obtain his license. Officers will then be tested so they are certified as pilots.

King and Keele stressed that the drone for the department cannot be flown over private property, but they can be flown directly above roadways and right-of-ways.

“Obviously, there are search and seizure limitations with the drone. We can’t just fly it over backyard because we feel like it. It would require a search warrant for us to basically encroach on your property,” said King. “As law enforcement, with following the same steps as we would follow in person, we can’t just fly around your house and see what you’re doing in your backyard. That’s an invasion of privacy.”

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