"Today it's windy and that's challenging when you're trying to fly a two-pound helicopter," Miller said.
When you talk about the Mesa County Sheriff's Department's air wing, you're really just speaking of Miller and the Draganflyer X-6. It is a small, radio-controlled aircraft that looks like something from a sci-fi movie. It has three rotors in the form of a triangle, and an on-board camera placed under the small tear shaped black body.
"Right now, I am tilting it. We can take still shots or stream video, and record HD video," Miller said.
It's all part of a very new idea in law enforcement that's just getting off the ground with the Mesa County Sheriff's Department leading the way.
"We are pioneering this," Miller said.
The plan is to replace helicopters, which have become invaluable to police work either tracking down suspects or searching for lost people. But they can cost a department millions to buy and operate. The X-6 is much less expensive.
"Its price tag of $30,000 is considerably less than the price tag of a manned helicopter at around $3 million. Also, the cost of operation per hour is right now calculated at around 5 to 10 cents and that's simply the cost of energy to charge the battery," Miller said.
It's a concept that's much like what the military does with Predator drones, but on a much smaller and cheaper scale.
"If you put unmanned aerial systems of UAS on a scale from 1 to 10, you could call the Predator drone around a 9 or 10 and the Draganflyer X-6 around a 2 or 3," Miller said.
Slightly more complicated than your recreational remote controlled helicopter, the X-6 has sensors that keep it from crashing and will land the aircraft if something goes wrong - like a battery dies or if it flies out of range.
"It uses 11 different sensors, inertial sensors, GPS, and the gambit of navigational sensors," Miller said.
That said, because of its size, there are limitations. It can only fly for about 20 minutes, has a cap on range, and can only fly in good weather.
The FAA also has a number of regulations on where it can fly, at what altitude and when, requiring the Mesa County Sheriff's Department to notify flight operations in Denver, as well as send out a pilot's version of a tweet - notifying other aircraft that the X-6 is in the air.
"From a police perspective, there could be some issues there. If we're trying to catch bad guys, we don't want to put a tweet saying we are going to be in your area and at what time," Miller said.
Still, Miller says he hopes in the near future to find a better work flow with FAA, saying the idea is so new they are still trying to determine the safety risks of unmanned aerial systems.
The idea is also catching on around the country.
"You get a little press and people start hearing about what you are doing. I get a few phone calls a week from other agencies around the country," Miller said.
So much interest has been generated that Miller and the X-6 were a feature topic at the Association of Unmanned Vehicles Conference in Denver this year, with Miller presenting two topics on what they have learned, and how they have been able to use the X-6.
The event also showcased a lot of other types of unmanned aircraft, including bigger versions of the X-6. They are still smaller than a Predator drone, but Miller says they have longer flight times and the ability to fly in bad weather. That makes them more realistic for what law enforcement needs.
"A fixed-wing system that uses less energy can stay aloft for an extended period and provide us the search capabilities were are looking for," Miller said.
For now, his department has the X-6, which isn't costing the sheriff's department much because the aircraft was donated by the manufacturer so it could be tested and even used in some real-life operations.
It recently took flight in a search and rescue, streaming video from the X-6 back to ground to try and find a missing hiker.
"We searched a whole wash area that normally the search and rescue coordinator would have put 10 to 20 people in a line walking through the brush. We watched the video live then went back over what was recorded to determine the hiker wasn't in that area," Miller said.
After more than a year of testing, Miller says the X-6 is just about ready for more work in the field as he gets ready to start putting it in a more operational role, meaning unmanned aerial technology could very soon take flight and make the sky the limit for how law enforcement patrols overhead in Mesa County.
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