Greenville County Sheriff’s Office deploys high-tech robot to help with underwater searches

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Deputy Nate Jordan, a member of the Greenville County Sheriff's Office Dive Team, examines the agency's new remotely operated underwater vehicle. The robot was recently donated by the ScanSource Charitable Foundation, a local nonprofit organization. Photo by Will Crooks/Greenville Journal.

Doug Beutler never imagined that his love of “Call of Duty” would translate into a career, but now he’s using his knack for video games to investigate underwater crime scenes.

Beutler, a deputy with the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office, is one of six ground-crew members with the agency’s dive team tasked with controlling a new “remotely operated underwater vehicle.”

The $12,000 device, known as a BlueROV2, was recently donated to the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office dive team by the ScanSource Charitable Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Greenville-based technology firm ScanSource Inc.

“ScanSource has had an ongoing relationship with the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office, and we’ve been honored to be involved with several charitable efforts and initiatives with them over the past several years,” said Joel Douglass, sales manager at ScanSource and president of the ScanSource Charitable Foundation. “The dive team plays such a vital role locally, and knowing the impact this underwater robot would have on the team’s capabilities and safety, we wanted to make sure it was fully funded.”

Beutler and several other members of the dive team conducted a training exercise with their robotic team member Tuesday morning at Lake Robinson in Greer.

As Deputy Nate Jordan, one of the team’s eight divers, waded through the water beside the robot, Beutler stood on a nearby fishing pier with an Xbox controller in his hands, peering into a small computer screen and watching a live video feed from the robot’s high-resolution camera.

With a couple of touches on the controller’s joystick and gaming pad, Beutler submerged the robot into the water and demonstrated some of its features, including a claw that can grab onto items. 

“We didn’t get a training guide with the robot, so we just put it in the water and played around with it until we figured everything out,” Beutler said. “I played a lot of Xbox when I was a kid, so it only took about 10 minutes for me to learn basic driving maneuvers.”

The Greenville County Sheriff’s Office dive team has received a remotely operated underwater vehicle from the ScanSource Charitable Foundation for underwater search and rescue operations. Photo by Will Crooks/Greenville Journal

Lt. Mike Decker, the dive team commander for the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office, said the new robot is designed to supplement the agency’s existing team of divers by helping them locate distressed swimmers, drowned bodies, and evidence that’s been discarded in local waterways.

Once the team has found an underwater object with sonar, it can send the robot to the exact location by inputting a set of GPS coordinates, according to Decker.

The robot can then transmit a live video feed to a topside computer, allowing the team to confirm whether or not it’s the object they’re searching for. If the object is verified, the team’s divers can retrieve it by following a long yellow cable that’s tethered to the robot. 

The Greenville County Sheriff’s Office used the robot earlier this year to help officials in Anderson County locate a missing boater at Lake Hartwell, according to Decker.

He said the robot, which is mostly used for possible drownings and evidence recovery, allows the Sheriff’s Office to conduct longer searches in deeper waters. 

While the agency’s divers can travel only 80 to 90 feet below the surface for no more than 15 minutes, the battery-powered robot can dive as far as 900 feet for up to four hours, according to Decker. 

The Greenville County Sheriff’s Office Dive Team has received a remotely operated underwater vehicle for search and rescue operations. The robot is steered with an Xbox controller. Photo by Will Crooks/Greenville Journal.

The Greenville County Sheriff’s Office is one of only two Upstate agencies to use a remotely operated underwater vehicle, according to Decker. The agency’s dive team responds to 15 to 20 incidents a year.

Master Deputy Wes Kilgore, the dive team’s lead instructor, said the robot will ultimately improve safety during some of the team’s riskier operations, including searches in dark-water environments.

While most law enforcement agencies prefer their divers to perform search operations in clear water with unlimited visibility, they often have to jump into brackish, polluted waters, according to Kilgore.

Diving into dark water is not only psychologically unsettling, but it can pose serious health risks to divers, who are not able to prevent contact with hazardous objects while swimming around, he said. 

Luckily, though, the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office can now keep its dive team out of the water until the new robot has located its target, according to Kilgore. 

“It will do most of the preliminary work before our divers even hit the water,” he said.

A deputy with the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office dive team places a remotely operated underwater vehicle into Lake Robinson in Greer during a recent training event. Photo by Will Crooks/Greenville Journal

Beutler said the use of a remote operating vehicle not only benefits the team’s divers but also helps members of the ground crew respond when an underwater emergency occurs.

“Our divers don’t have a communications system, but the robot allows us to see them when they’re swimming around,” Beutler said. “It’s a big comfort for us to have that capability, because we can send someone down if our divers need help.”

While the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office doesn’t plan to add a second robot to its underwater searches anytime soon, Kilgore said the dive team is looking to eventually purchase locators that can be mounted on divers, allowing them to see where they are in relation to the robot when swimming around. 

The dive team also plans to request funds from the Sheriff’s Office to purchase a computer with a graphics card that’s capable of fully supporting the robot’s software, according to Kilgore.

For more information, visit www.gcso.org.

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