BRAINERD-Unmanned aerial vehicles are taking off in many industries, but Crow Wing County Emergency Management is at the forefront of Minnesota's expanding emergency use of drones.

Thanks to an $80,000 grant from the National Joint Powers Alliance (now called Sourcewell), Crow Wing County was able to start a drone response program in late 2017/early 2018. The grant paid not only to buy two foldable Mavic Pro drones, but also two large Matrice 210 drones with two cameras, one with zoom and one with infrared capabilities.

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"The concept kind of came about a couple years ago, about the capabilities a drone could provide for public safety in Crow Wing County," said John Bowen, Crow Wing County emergency management director.

Drones were used at the scene of a Crosslake fire last week, as well as at the Crosslake St. Patrick's Day Parade in March.

Crow Wing Sheriff's Department Capt. Scott Goddard said the department had included a drone in its list of "wants" on the budget for several years, especially after the 2015 storms that swept the area, but the grant made it possible to make the leap sooner. It helped that several emergency response groups saw the merits in a drone program.

Funding also paid to train 12 cross departmental pilots from the sheriff's department, local police departments, fire departments and county jail.

"As a resource, we looked at who and how to build a team of pilots," Goddard said. "If we are busy with law enforcement, we might not have additional personnel to help, where fire might. Then the same thing. Say fire is working a wildfire, or a huge structure. We might have extra personnel that can operate the drone. It's a good, even split with the capabilities and where we can draw personnel from."

Emergency management hopes that when they are needed, a drone can be deployed to virtually anywhere in the county within a half hour.

"There have been numerous instances where we've asked in the past for a helicopter or State Patrol and they come out of the metro," Goddard said. "When they arrive, they often can only help us 15-20 minutes before they go get fuel and then start again."

With a drone, however, it is as simple as landing, inserting a new battery and taking off again.

Given that in some situations a drone with heat camera can replace several emergency searchers, this piece of technology has clear advantages.

"The search capabilities, it's incredible," Goddard said. "If we have a lost child, overdue hunter, overdue boater maybe in the middle of the night, we can quickly scan a huge area."

Emergency management is continuing to think of ways to use the drones. So far those uses include monitoring events like the Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza on Gull Lake in January and the Crosslake St. Patrick's Day Parade in March; remotely monitoring conditions in dangerous environments; reconstructing accident scenes; finding missing people with the infrared camera; monitoring spread of wildfires; and monitoring the location of a fire and roof integrity inside of a building using infrared cameras. The larger drones can assist in saving drowning victims.

"We end up with two times a year where it's difficult for emergency personnel to get out on the lakes," Goddard said. "When ice is first forming and when ice is going out. With bigger drones, we can actually fly out with the drone with an attached and throwable rope and we can deliver it with precision to the person's hand."