At least one local police department in the Coastal Empire is training officers and deploying new crime-fighting technology.

The Federal Aviation Administration calls them Small Unmanned Aerial Systems, but they’re more commonly called drones and they are earning their wings every day.

Drones are being piloted by officers in active shooter situations and much more.

The Richmond Hill Police Department has thousands of dollars invested in drone technology. They say it is a game changer when it comes to protecting the public and police officers.

The Richmond Hill Police Drone Unit is made up of three officers, led by Captain Jason Sakelarios. He confirms drones were part of the equipment used by police in Jacksonville during the public shooting there on Sunday.

Sakelarios says in violent situations, a bird’s eye perspective is priceless and it actually extends the safe zone to keep responding officers out of the line of fire. 

“We can keep those officers at a safe distance. We can move people out of the way. We can see suspects before they see us,” said Sakelarios.

The Bryan County-based drone pilots tell us a real local payoff is on the horizon, especially when people go missing in rugged regions.

Their drone has thermal imaging and an operational range of a mile. It can also rise to four hundred feet, with the ability to see a horizon that includes the curve of the earth.

It’s equipment, Sakelarios says, that replaces the boots on the ground needed when searching for someone, especially when time and terrain are factors. 

“When you’re talking about having to search the wetlands areas or anyplace like that. It’s very difficult to do on foot,” he said.

Sergeant Brandon Tufts, another pilot with Richmond Hill PD agrees, adding time will prove the real value of their investment in drone technology to protect and serve. 

“It’s already come in handy a couple times, but there’s gonna be one time, where it really does what we need it to do,” he said.

Drones offer law enforcement much more than a strategic advantage. It’s economical because operational costs for a drone are just a fraction of the cost of getting a manned aircraft off the ground. 

“The expense of flying a helicopter is much greater.  You’re talking thousands of dollars every time that, you know, the aircraft takes off,” Sakelarios said. “We’re talking a few cents basically every time we launch this.”

Richmond Hill’s police drone cost more than $16,000 dollars.  He says it was paid for with SPLOST funds.