4-foot plane helps deputies ‘see’ from air

Mesa County Sheriff’s Department deputy Danny Norris launches a fixed-wing airplane called the Falcon near Loma on Friday. The Sheriff’s Department acquired the unmanned aerial vehicle this week for $14,000 and intends to use it to help search for missing persons, to assess wildfires and for other purposes.

Already equipped with an unmanned helicopter, the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department this week added to its aerial toolbox an unmanned fixed-wing airplane to help assess wildfires, search for missing people and use for other investigatory purposes.

Sheriff’s Department officials demonstrated the Falcon, a 4-foot-long, 9-pound vehicle Friday near Loma, explaining how it works and how it might be used by the department in the future.

The Falcon joins the Draganflyer X6, an unmanned helicopter donated to the Sheriff’s Department in 2009, as an airborne tool authorities can use to shoot still photographs and video and gather Global Positioning System coordinates. The Sheriff’s Department paid $14,000 for the Falcon.

Compared to the Draganflyer, which has a maximum flight time of 15 to 20 minutes, the Falcon can fly for up to an hour and, because it’s heavier, better withstand wind and other weather elements, Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Heather Benjamin said.

The Falcon has manual pilot capabilities, but it’s most useful and efficient on autopilot, allowing its operators to type into a computer where they want the plane to fly.

“It does the work, and we sort of manage it,” Benjamin said.

“You tell it where to go, and it will continuously fly over those parameters you set for it.”

She said the company that manufactured the Falcon, CLMax Engineering, contacted the Sheriff’s Department after learning it was testing the Draganflyer and asked if authorities would be willing to test it for law-enforcement purposes.

Benjamin said deputies have launched the Draganflyer for roughly 30 missions, including to shoot photos at crime scenes, fatal accidents and the White Hall fire last year in downtown Grand Junction.

After initially only being able to test the Draganflyer at the Mesa County Landfill, the Sheriff’s Department received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration early last year to expand the plane’s flights to the entire area of Mesa County.

The Sheriff’s Department is one of three law-enforcement agencies in the U.S. operating unmanned aerial vehicles, Benjamin said.


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