Skywatching: Local law enforcement and emergency management team up to keep an eye on the airspace

Drones have many good uses, but some could also use them as a threat to public safety
Published: Nov. 12, 2021 at 10:27 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Some people think of drones as a toy or a way to get great pictures, but the tiny aircraft could pose a threat. Some local parishes step up with new technology to prevent potential attacks from the unsuspecting source.

Drones are a relatively new way to get a different point of view. Dr. John Kiefer a University of New Orleans professor of political science said, “The drone is just an extension for many people of their camera.”

In the last decade, the small unmanned aircraft exploded in use. Director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for St. Charles Parish Joe Ganote said, “Drones are being used at a high rate not only just down the recreational side and a hobbyist. They’re also being used in industry to do inspections and there where you had to put a man in danger you don’t need to do that any longer.”

The flying machines can help get eyes on remote or difficult to get to infrastructure, but as with any innovation, there are drawbacks.

“We all know that drones are a lot of fun, but they also can be used for nefarious purposes,” Kiefer said.

“Drones now have the ability to deliver payloads up to 40 pounds depending on the type,” according to Ganote.

While we often hear of military drone strikes some readily available retail models can have devastating capabilities.

Kiefer said, “We saw that most recently in Jammu in India where explosive devices were dropped by drones.”

Kiefer, a former marine, said, “Drones can be used to basically take a look at critical infrastructure and by critical infrastructure really mean the arteries and the real heartbeat of any community.” He says as regulations catch up with the technology it is important to recognize not only the benefits but possible pitfalls.

“Homeland Security Directors of various parishes are very concerned about this,” said Kiefer.

Including Ganote in St. Charles Parish, is the first parish in this region to implement drone detection technology. “There’s a lot of use for the drones, but with that becomes a potential for a threat if it falls into the wrong hands,” said Ganote.

The parish is equipped with sensors that can pinpoint any drone take-off and trace it back to the location of the pilot. Ganote said, “We had a situation in 2016 where we had a drone flying over one of our industrial facilities and so we went out to try to find the pilot which was almost impossible. Trying to find a needle in a haystack.”

That is when he began researching a way to track them. He said, “90% of the time when you find someone that’s flying in the area they probably shouldn’t when the response is there it is a kid or hobbyist that just needs to be educated.”

The system uses sensors to listen for a distinct sound wave produced by the communication between the drone and it’s remote allowing law enforcement to find exactly where the pilot is located.

Ganote said, “If we have a mission like this it gives you the latitude and the longitude and you just click on that through Google Earth and it will tell you exactly where the pilot is standing.”

With a plethora of sensitive sites in the parish from oil and gas production, chemical plants, and the Waterford Three nuclear power facility there is no shortage of critical infrastructure to protect.

Most hits are harmless. Ganote said, “However you may just have that one person that may be up to something or planning something and now you put it in their head that hey they saw me here and maybe I need to go someplace else. It acts as a great deterrent in that respect.”

Where once distance and barbed wire fences were sufficient protection drones opened up an avenue for corporate espionage or worse.

When St. James parish officials saw how St. Charles used the detection system they knew it would benefit them as well.

Sid Berthelot is a colonel with the St. James Parish Sheriff’s department. He said, “We are hoping that people when they do buy them that they go through the drone registration process with the FAA and that they follow these guidelines to be a responsible operator.”

Any drone over a half-pound must be registered. He said, “Well, anything around a critical infrastructure such as industry, docks around the river, jail facilities, high schools, football fields, highways. . .public highways are just some areas that you can’t fly.”

These rules are outlined under Title 14 in Louisiana law and could come with some stiff penalties. Berthelot said, “First three times that you are caught it is only a misdemeanor on the fourth time it is a felony.”

He said in the few months since their system began working, they have already made an arrest.

“We actually made one case. A criminal case against an individual who is flying in a location that geo-fenced and was not supposed to be there,” said Berthelot.

Like in St. Charles though that is the rarity. Since using the system a little more than a year and a half Ganote is shocked at how many more uses they have found for it. He said, “It creates a lot of security, not only at the ground level but all the way up into the air.”

Helping to clear the air space for medical transport helicopters and getting prying eyes in the sky away from crime scenes. Ganote said, “We do not villainize the drones, but if we have someone that wants to use it for nefarious action. We are able to engage that person at least question and find out what their intent is and then hopefully we can deter any further planning or preparation for a potential attack.”

Protecting citizens and helping them use the aircraft safely and legally. “So it’s really the way of the world, and they are not going to go away and we don’t want him to go away. We just don’t want them to fall into the wrong hands,” said Ganote.

Making sure the technology is safe as it continues to take off.

St. Charles Parish recorded more than one hundred thousand drone flights in the area since they began using drone detection last year. The system developed by the Tampa-based corporation FLYMOTION is paid for through a partnership with local industry in St. Charles. St. James started a pilot program with a law enforcement grant and is working with private industry to enhance the system.

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