The North Dakota Highway Patrol was granted a waiver to fly drones over people this month, but the Northeast Region Unmanned Aircraft System unit isn’t rushing to follow in its footsteps.

Chief Pilot Mike Gavere, who is with the Grand Forks Police Department, said the unit is interested in the waiver, but hasn’t seen a drastic need for it yet because most of the work has been either in rural areas or scenes where an area is already controlled.

The regional team is a collaboration between the Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Office, Grand Forks Police Department, UND Police Department, Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the Grand Forks Fire Department. Gavere said there are currently nine pilots and seven drones that respond to scenes all over the region, including counties in Minnesota.

“We do a lot of things like respond with law enforcement and fire rescue, so it’ll be a lot of call outs for accident photos -- we’ll take accident photos, do a lot of search and rescue for missing victims or drowning victims, fleeing subjects, crime scene photography,” Gavere said.

The Federal Aviation Administration sets regulations for where and how pilots can fly drones and Gavere said the unmanned aircraft systems are not allowed to fly over people who are not involved in an investigation.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live

North Dakota is the first state where a highway patrol agency was granted a four-year waiver to fly over people, according to a press release from the department. The waiver was granted as part of the North Dakota Department of Transportation’s UAS Integration Pilot Program, which aims to accelerate drone integration and work to improve existing regulations and craft new rules to fit into the rapidly evolving usage.

The Burleigh County Sheriff’s Department received federal approval to fly over people just days before the highway patrol. The waiver requires a parachute to be attached to the drones.

Gavere said drone pilots have to fly within the line of sight and the northeast team policy requires an observer to accompany the pilot and watch the drone as it’s in the air.

“As of lately, we haven’t had any issues maintaining the line of sight and we’re very cautious not to fly over people or vehicles,” he said. “A lot of our call outs are done in a more rural area or in a controlled setting like a traffic crash, where the intersections are already shut down, so there isn’t a lot of uninvolved people in our investigations where we have to fly.”

The regional program was launched by the Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Office in 2012 and was one of the first law enforcement agencies in the country to incorporate drones.

Gavere said the fire department just joined the team within the past month and he hopes to purchase drones for the department to bring with them to scenes as more first responders are trained into the program. He said some of the drones are equipped with thermal technology that can help detect hot spots during a fire.

“Drones are kind of the way of the future,” he said. “It can really help out our profession as far as emergency responders go, for search and rescue, taking photos that you wouldn’t see from the ground to get a new perspective -- it can really be a game changer.”