POLK COUNTY — If you happen to hear a hum, see no bees and can't figure out what it is, look up!
It just may be the one of the latest additions to Polk County's law enforcement agencies roster of crime-fighting tools — a drone.
Many of Polk's police agencies have them, including the Polk County Sheriff's Office, as well as police departments in Winter Haven, Haines City and Lakeland.
These stealth-seekers have been quietly working in the skies overhead, helping cops find lost people, scout crime scenes and give law enforcement an “eye-in-the-sky” to help protect and serve.
PCSO deputies have the largest volume of the machines, since the department has the most ground to cover, with a total of 20 unmanned aircraft. Lakeland’s department claims six, the WHPD has four and Haines City is one of the more recent departments to jump on the bandwagon with its acquisition of one of the gadgets.
Each department has an equivalent number of Federal Aviation Administration-certified drone pilots to go with the machines.
These intricate devices can cost relatively little to buy and operate, depending on what bells and whistles each department needs. Those used to launch during daylight hours can cost about $2,000 each, but the more high-end models that fly at night can cost several times that amount.
The Polk County Sheriff's Office paid about $27,000 a pop for its night-time drones, but those feature — in addition to the basic video feed a daytime counterpart has — more lights, infrared or heat-seeking capabilities and a host of other more sophisticated data-gathering tools, says PCSO Master Deputy Jeff Bradford.
Bradford recently demonstrated one of the daytime aerial devices, showing how a certified drone pilot can have an eagle eye to help search broad expanses with little manpower or effort.
The daytime drone is equipped with a movable camera that transmits a live video feed to the operator's laptop computer or tablet, which also holds the equipment to control the device. The controls look and work much like a joystick used for a video or arcade game.
While transmitting video to its pilot, the device also is providing location data.
Bradford explains that he can tell exactly how far the machine was from his location, as well as its exact altitude, just by looking at the computer screen. The drone he did the demonstration with does have an altitude limit of 400 feet, he explained further.
The machines also have variable speeds — one to glide and hover at and another to zip away.
“That means I can quickly relocate the drone if I need to or (it can) just stand still, watching,” he explained.
PCSO spokeswoman Carrie Horstman said the drones the department has purchased have saved the department thousands of dollars by providing aerial support that had previously been provided by the department's helicopter.
“Using the drones has saved us about $58,000 so far this year since we haven't had to launch the helicopter as much,” she said in July. “There are some circumstances where you have to use the helicopter, but a lot of the time, the drone is sufficient.”
PCSO staff call their drone unit — both the pilots and the machines — the Aerial Response Team, and it is distributed throughout the department's five substations, with each having day and night-time units.
According to Bradford and Horstman, the ART was deployed 363 times in the first half of 2019, resulting in the arrest of 13 suspects and one successful search-and-rescue operation.
The other departments utilizing drones report similar situations where the machines have been deployed.
Bradford, who underwent the 40-plus hours of training it takes to obtain an operator's certification, explained that his drone was recently called out to help find a man lost in one of the county's desolate, swampy areas.
“I searched the area where we thought he had gotten lost and spotted him in a tree,” Bradford explained. “I turned on the drone's red lights, dropped it down so he could see it and told him to follow the lights to safety. He did and it was a great save.”
Winter Haven Police Department spokeswoman Jamie Brown said her department recently deployed one of its drones to do an aerial check on a person sitting in a parked car.
“We didn't know if that person was sick and needed help or had something else going on,” she explained. “So we sent in the drone and it gave our officers a clear view of the person in the vehicle, and of the inside of the car itself, so we could see there were no weapons (and) our officers could safely approach the vehicle.”
While the uses seem myriad, all the departments maintain they do not use the machines for routine surveillance and are “very cognizant” of privacy issues.
“We're not 'Big Brother' here,” Horstman said. “That's not what these are for. They are just to help us do our jobs better.”