FARGO — Matt King gazed intently at the video screen as he guided a small drone on a training flight along the Red River near downtown Fargo.
The drone's camera captured images of ice flows on the river as well as the Red's rapid movement on a day when the spring melt was in full swing.
King, a deputy with the Cass County Sheriff's Office, is one of 14 members of a newly formed multi-agency unit that will employ the use of drones in a wide variety of missions, ranging from helping battle structure fires to dealing with natural disasters.
The looming spring flood is expected to be the first major incident the unit tackles, according to Chris Pieper, another member of the unit and a captain with the Fargo Fire Department.
The use of drones, Pieper said, could have "huge benefits in the county," as local agencies gear up for anticipated flooding.
Those potential benefits, he added, include the ability to determine from the air which roads in the county become impassable, as well as how water moves once it leaves riverbanks.
Although new to the drone unit, both King and Pieper were drone hobbyists prior to joining the Red River Valley Unmanned Aircraft Systems Unit, which includes representatives of the sheriff's office, fire department as well as Fargo and West Fargo police departments, and the West Fargo Fire Department.
The unit currently has eight drones, which vary by model but were all made by DJI.
Drones used by the unit can stream live images to officials on the ground and record video to an SD card for later viewing and analyzing.
Recorded video contains GPS data officials can use to pinpoint locations they see in the video.
Pilots flying the drones must pass a written test and while operating drones they must adhere to all FAA rules when it comes to issues like where drones can be flown and at what altitudes.
"We are doing everything by regulation," Pieper said.
While the local drone unit is just getting off the ground, Pieper said agencies elsewhere have had them for some time and online video channels offer a wealth of examples of how drones are being used.
He cited a recent example where law enforcement agents in Texas used a drone to track a suspect who fled a residence and was ultimately found hiding in an area of brush.
That case was aided by infrared imaging, a capability some drones in the new local unit possess.