An unmanned drone, received by the Perham Fire Department last month, made its maiden flight last week at the train derailment in Callaway, according to fire chief Mark Schmidt.
Operating the drone is a team effort, Schmidt said. One person flies the drone and another operates its sophisticated camera.
In the Callaway incident, the camera operator also worked closely with a hazmat crew, who identified what pictures to take to help determine valve safety, where the leak was located and the integrity of the propane tanker.
“We work pretty closely,” Schmidt said of the flight and camera operators. “When (the drone) is flying, we are a few feet apart.”
The $12,000 unmanned aerial vehicle is a DSI Seeker, donated to the Perham Fire Department by the West Central Emergency Medical Services. Based on the quality of the photos taken at the Callaway derailment, the money is in the cameras, Schmidt said.
“The quality of the film was like watching TV,” he said. “It was very clear.”
The drone flew over the wreckage, snapping photos, which were taken to the command post and downloaded, allowing the hazmat team, railroad officials and law enforcement to get a closer look at the damage. The team was able to cut out some segments and email those photos to area specialists to verify safety and other issues, Schmidt said.
For its maiden flight, the drone performed as intended, limiting safety risks to responders.
“We were able to get up close without putting anyone in harm’s way,” Schmidt said.
Other ways the fire department expects to use the drone include search and rescues, wildfires, burning buildings, flood assessments, manmade or natural disasters, and possibly in reconstructing vehicle crashes, he said, adding the technology is so new, the list of possible scenarios to use the drone is endless.
“The drone technology saves time, money, resources and possibly lives,” he said.
The drone may also get lots of use, as it will serve Becker, Clay, Douglas, Grant, Pope, Stevens, Traverse and Wilkin Counties, as well as incidents throughout Otter Tail County.
Schmidt trained to operate the vehicle, and with more training scheduled, he hopes to eventually have eight to 10 people trained to fly and operate the drone. Training covers operation of the drone, as well rules and regulations about flight concerns, such as flying around airports. The drone will only be used in true emergency incidents, Schmidt said.
“We are not going to go out and fly over Perham,” he said. “Use of the drone technology is to assist in emergency response, and incident management, as well as assuring the safety of first responders.”