Even jetliner pilots have to start small.
A group of area first responders took the controls of drones this week through a training program hosted by Kilgore Police Department and spearheaded by Joshua Fire Chief Wayne Baker of 460 OPS.
On Thursday, a high-pitched buzzing filled the Texan Theater as small, store-bought gadgets whirred around an improvised obstacle course in the enclosed space downtown. For the most part, they stayed airborne, but the occasional collisions with rafters, walls and pylons didn’t do too much lasting damage.
“We let them get their crashes out on the $100 drones so they’re not getting them out on the $10,000 ones,” Baker said June 6.
Coaching participants from Kilgore, Henderson, Mt. Pleasant, Wood County and other surrounding agencies, Baker set them a series of tasks – take-off, land, pitch, yaw, rotate, re-orient, move in reverse, make a figure eight – steadily getting the trainees accustomed to unfamiliar controls and disorienting displays.
By Friday morning, the police officers and firefighters were ready for larger flyers, sending them soaring above Kilgore High School and downtown Kilgore.
For the most part, it was all new for Kilgore PD’s Jason Romine, but he adjusted quickly.
“I had radio-controlled cars when I was growing up,” he said, “but never anything that flew.
“The hard part is realizing which way you’re pointing because everything keeps spinning. Your left and right get crossed as it turns. It’s really easy to lose you’re orientation.”
That said, Romine set himself to the task eagerly, running a dinner plate-sized drone through its paces, monitoring progress with a bug-eyed display on a smartphone.
“There’s a learning curve,” Det. Tim Dukes agreed, and the technology is ever-changing. “There’s so much it can do. In the future it’s going to be fantastic.”
Initial plans at KPD call for trained officers to utilize drones to document crash scenes and crimes scenes, pairing with Kilgore Fire Department personnel on search-and-rescue missions with the flying tech.
Looking ahead, 3D mapping will be valuable as well, Dukes said, in the right situation.
“There’s a myriad of things that it can be used for. You’re going to see more and more use of them,” he added, with no taxpayer dollars invested in the high-priced hardware: “We’ve got the cream of the crop, all bought by drug seizure funds.”
This week’s training spread from the Texan Thursday to Kilgore High School’s practice field Friday morning. The emergency responders from across the area will spend the next week honing their skills before returning for a “final exam” on the tiny craft.
“We’re going over proficiency on basic flight skills,” Baker confirmed. “Can they maneuver and control the aircraft? There’s a series of maneuvers we check them off on,” awarding a certificate at the end of the program, just to affirm their ground-level training. “The technology is so new, a lot of that is still getting developed. They’re just now coming out with some new national standards we’re starting to integrate.
At 460 OPS, “A lot of our guys have written some best practices using some of the new national standards that have come out.”
KPD’s drone operators have different skills levels, Assistant Chief Roman Roberson added, hence the need for a standardized training before sending the devices out in the field. Some officers have toyed with the tech in the past and needed a chance to break bad habits; some approached the task from a completely fresh perspective.
“This gives them the opportunity to start with the basics.”