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Drone technology assisting Stillwater emergency responders

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View from the drone

The area in this view of the southeast part of Stillwater, from one of Stillwater Emergency Management Agency's DJI Phantom 3s, is prone to wildfires, according to the City of Stillwater.

Stillwater first responders have an eye in the sky.

Rob Hill, director of the Stillwater Emergency Management Agency, said the agency got its first unmanned aerial vehicle in mid-2015 and has since gotten two more, including one for training.

The two primary UAVs, commonly known as drones, SEMA purchased are Phantom 3s, Hill said.

Assistant Fire Chief Robert Black said the UAVs have potential to help first responders, especially fighting wildfires.

Black said the UAVs could be used to help determine the size and direction of wildfires, as well as after wildfires to see damage.

Black said the fire department has called SEMA to bring out one of the drones only once to his knowledge, last year after a grass fire near the Stillwater Police Department firing range. SEMA came out with a UAV the day after the fire had been put out to help determine how much was burned and help figure out where the fire started, Black said.

Hill said SEMA has two teams that fly the UAVs so they can rotate shifts. Each team is made up of two people, a pilot and a visual flight observer, Hill said.

The teams never work more than 12-hour shifts, regardless of whether they are flying, Hill said.

Hill said a team with a vehicle could be deployed to support both law enforcement and firefighters in as little as 30 minutes.

“We have some preflight checks that have to be completed, we have some paperwork that has to be completed and we have to contact the local Stillwater (airport) tower and let them know where we’re gonna be,” Hill said.

The aircraft operators have to go through some of the most involved training in the state and practice regularly, he said.

“We have a short introduction class to our aircrafts,” Hill said. “They get around eight to 10 hours of exposure behind the joystick at very low altitudes, and then once they get familiar with the aircraft and can actually do maneuvers with the aircraft comfortably and smoothly, then we’ll actually let them gain some altitude.”

Hill said the pilots take the drones out to practice at least once a month. The pilots in training also go out and see how SEMA works with other agencies in the use of the UAVs. The flight hours are carefully recorded, and Stillwater is fairly unique in the practice of documenting pilot’s training, he said.

“With the exception of OSU and their flight program, we’ve got one of the more training-intense programs,” Hill said. “Most of them are just letting them go out and get some air time then letting them go and do what they need to do.”

The drones were purchased using an annual federal grant given to the State of Oklahoma, then distributed to local agencies, which SEMA now uses to maintain and update the drones, Hill said.

“The City of Stillwater and Emergency Management participates in what is known as the Emergency Management Performance Grant, and it’s a program that is done by the federal government to the state level then down to the local level,” Hill said. “Each year, we get a certain number of dollars that come into our agency.”

Hill said SEMA has worked to make sure it is operating within Federal Aviation Agency guidelines.

“What the City of Stillwater is currently doing is we have applied for a certificate of authorization from the FAA to allow us to fly our aircraft,” Hill said. “What that does for us is that allows us to take our aircraft and deploy it to assist other departments or other agencies so they know we’re not flying as a hobbyist.”

DJI manufactures the Phantom 3s, which come equipped with a 4K video camera. They can climb as high as 19,685 feet and fly up to 16 meters per second, according to the manufacturer’s website.

The UAV can also be controlled from as far as 3.1 miles, according to the website.