In the early morning hours last week, a search for a missing woman had gone cold.

Officers and police dogs from the Johnson and Shelby County sheriff’s departments had spent about two hours looking for a woman who had gone missing from her home in Shelby County following a medical emergency, but rain impeded their nighttime search. While police dogs had initially found the woman’s scent and had an idea of which direction she had gone, they later lost her trail.

That’s when Bagersville Fire Department Division Chief Eric Funkhouser was called in to assist with the search.

Story continues below gallery

Click here to purchase photos from this gallery

From the time he arrived shortly after 4 a.m. to when he had set up his drone and located the woman — about a quarter-mile away from the home in a soybean field — was less than 20 minutes, Funkhouser said. Funkhouser kept the drone hovering about 100 feet over the woman while emergency workers raced over to get to her and take her to the hospital for treatment.

Bargersville Fire is one of a handful of agencies in Johnson County that have begun using drones. Franklin and Bargersville police both have drones, and Johnson County Emergency Management, White River Fire Department and Edinburgh Fire Department say they would like to eventually have them as well.

The small devices are able to fly several hundred feet in the air and as far as 2 miles away, carrying a camera that allows emergency workers to see what is happening below and can also detect heat to find missing people.

Two years years ago, no local agencies had one, but in recent years, with the cost to purchase one falling, they have become an affordable option for local departments, Funkhouser said.

Drones have become an invaluable resource, such as in situations where emergency workers have to track down a missing person, he said.

But drones also can pose challenges, from training staff on how to fly them and getting the proper licensing, to making sure to follow laws that dictate where and when they can be used, said Bargersville Police Department Assistant Chief Todd Bertram, who manages the department’s drone program.

Drones pilots have to be aware of restricted airspace where the Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t let them fly without permission. Police have to avoid situations where they would be infringing on people’s privacy rights, which means no taking photos or videos of property’s without a warrant, Bertram said.

TIME-SAVER

In last week’s search, the drone allowed the woman to be found faster and without the need to bring in more searchers. She was in a position that would have been difficult for searchers to see on the ground, and a couple dozen people would need to have been called in to do a thorough search of the area around the home, Funkhouser said.

“It saved a lot of time and effort and we were able to end the search at that point, and she was on her way to the hospital,” he said.

Besides assisting in searches for missing people, the fire department has used its drone about 20 times to provide video footage and photographs of car crashes and document damage from the major flooding in July, Funkhouser said.

Other local agencies, such as the Greenwood and Whiteland fire departments, don’t have drones or plans to get them in the near future. But they do have arrangements with the Bargersville Fire Department to get assistance when a drone is needed, such as in a search for a missing person or handling a major car crash, Funkhouser said.

The Greenwood Police Department would like more clarity on the legal issues surrounding police use of drones.

For police departments, drones come with the added challenge of determining when and how the devices can be legally used, Bertram said.

The Bargersville Police Department has a policy of only conducting surveillance of a property with a drone with approval from the Johnson County Prosecutor’s Office, something they have not requested so far, Bertram said. Should they want to take photos or video of private property, they would need a warrant, he said.

The legal issues of when and where drones can be used is one of the reasons the Greenwood Police Department hasn’t pursued getting one, assistant chief Matt Fillenwarth said.

Should lawmakers loosen some of the restrictions, such as those about being over private property, that is something the department might consider, he said.

Bargersville police purchased two drones at the start of this year and has used them for everything from searches to documenting crash scenes, Bertram said.

Earlier this year, a report of stolen motorcycle led officers to a heavily wooded neighborhood in Indianapolis, where they had been told the motorcycle had been left by a lake. Rather than having officers comb through the woods, a brief search with the drone allowed them to find and retrieve the motorcycle quickly, he said.

Aerial photographs of crash scenes allow officers to piece together the events that led up to an accident much faster than by looking at photographs taken at different angles from the ground, Bertram said.

Franklin police bought a drone at the beginning of the year, but the department hasn’t begun to use it yet. Two officers will begin training soon and the department is working to create a policy for when and where drones will be used, police chief Tim O’Sullivan said.

Two Franklin officers will train to use the $1,000 drone initially, but that number could expand depending on how useful the device is shown to be, deputy chief Jim Hoeing said.

To fly the drones, officers will need to study and pass a test for a pilot’s license. The officers will be able to study with information available online from the FAA. Each officer will need a license that costs $150 and lasts for two years, he said.

O’Sullivan expects the department to begin using the drone as early as next year, but before that, he will need to research state law and talk with other agencies that use drones to make sure the department is doing everything correctly. That means learning about FAA requirements, the restrictions state lawmakers have placed on drone use over private property and keeping an eye on future changes in drone laws.

Bargersville police has three officers, including Bertram, licensed to use the drones.

The license allows drone pilots to essentially fly wherever they want so long as they aren’t going through restricted airspace, such as near an airport, Bertram said. In those situations, the department would need clearance from the FAA, he said.

WORTH THE COST?

The cost of drones, which can range from around $1,000 to as much as $25,000, is a small price compared to the benefits they offer, officials say.

The Bargersville Fire Department got its drone through a grant while the Bargersville Police Department used tax dollars for its purchase.

Bargersville police spent about $4,000 for two less expensive models of drones and cameras, Bertram said.

Their drones aren’t able to fly in inclement weather, such as high wind or rain, like other models. The department has logged about 35 flights, but has had another dozen situations where a drone would have been useful, but weather conditions meant they couldn’t fly it, Bertram said.

Eventually, the plan is to upgrade to better models, now that they’ve been able to use the drones for the year and have seen first-hand how effective they have been, he said.

Johnson County Emergency Management is considering getting a drone, but will likely need to wait until next year before it has an opportunity to apply for a grant to cover the cost, director Stephanie Sichting said. The county office wants a $25,000 drone that would allow officials to get high quality photos of damage from disasters, she said.

If the county had a drone after a disaster such as a flood or a tornado, it could be used to identify places where roads were flooded and direct highway department workers to places were fallen trees or limbs need to be cleared off the road, she said.

Sichting had wanted to apply for a grant for a drone this year, but had to push off the request until 2018 due to more urgent funding needs, including repairs and upgrades to the bomb squad robot.

Local governments are also looking into other uses for drones.

The White River Fire Department, which doesn’t have drones but is considering eventually getting one, could use them for activities such as building inspections, fire chief Jeremy Pell said.

Having an aerial view of buildings provides firefighters with more information about what they may be facing if they have to respond to a fire at that location, and inspectors could more easily determine if a building is being constructed in line with the building code, he said.

At a glance

Local law enforcement and fire departments have begun getting drones to aid in locating missing people or taking photos of crash scenes for investigations.

Bargersville Fire Department

Number of drones: 1

Number of drone pilots: 2

Times used: 20

Bargersville Police Department

Number of drones: 2

Number of drone pilots: 3

Times used: 35

Franklin Police Department

Number of drones 1

Number of drone pilots: 2

Times used: None yet

Author photo
Jacob Tellers is a reporter at the Daily Journal. He can be reached at jtellers@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2702.