Ohio sheriff’s force to swap its helicopters for enlarged drone fleet

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Step aside Blue Thunder, the law enforcement future belongs to UAVs. That, in any case, is what one Ohio police force has decided in swapping its helicopters for what its leader says are more affordable, effective, and quieter drones.

According to a report by Cincinnati-area TV station Local 12 News, Ohio’s Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office will be making increased use of drones to take up slack created by it retiring its two helicopters. Though officials acknowledge there may be some loss of mission potential in the exchange, they say the force will realize operational savings of several hundred thousand dollars – and a windfall income of millions from selling the choppers.

And while that change wouldn’t thrill the daring pilot-heroes of TV series like Magnum PI or Hawaii Five-0, Hamilton Sheriff Charmaine McGuffey argues that opting for drones over helicopters is the only reasonable move for law enforcement agencies these days.

“Helicopters… right now, they’re becoming flying dinosaurs,” McGuffey told a recent meeting of county commissioners.

For starters, whirly-birds are very expensive to fly, with typical deployment by police forces around the US often costing anywhere from a grand to $10,000 per mission. Those collectively take a $3 million annual bite out of Hamilton County Sheriff’s budget, which is also facing a recurring maintenance bill of $300,000 for once of the craft.

For that same $300K, McGuffey says, her sheriffs can add 15 more specialized drones to their current fleet of UAVs, none of which require anywhere near the kind of upkeep or repair that helicopters do. The other financial motive for the move: One of the choppers the force purchased a few years back four years ago for $1.6 million will fetch $2 million on today’s market.

There are downsides, of course. 

First off, Ohio is known for being particularly protective of individual privacy, and has passed some fairly restrictive drone laws reflecting what remains acute public concerns. Conscious of that, Hamilton’s Sheriff Office says it will limit UAV deployment to incident responses – conflict situations, for example, or pursuits – and won’t be collecting visuals from surrounding areas. 

Read moreOhio draft laws seek to define private and police drone use 

Under questioning from a Local 12 News reporter, meantime, a Hamilton officer acknowledged that unlike helicopters, police drones can’t deliver canine or SWAT units to unfolding emergencies or difficult to access areas. 

To solve that problem, Hamilton might consider use the millions it stands to recover in selling its helicopters to procure larger drone tech as Spain’s National Police did in buying electric takeoff and landing planes designed for air taxi use to transport officers at lower costs – and with zero emissions – than choppers can. 

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