The Greenville Police Department could join a growing number of law enforcement agencies that use drones to help catch criminals, find missing persons, and even help in accident investigations.

“It’s a helicopter without a pilot,” police Chief Ken Miller said.

Miller said the unmanned aircraft systems could be used by other city departments such as the fire department and public works for inspecting hard-to-access areas or for structural inspections.

He wants to use $34,796 from the U.S. Department of Justice Edward Byrne Justice Assistance grant to help purchase unmanned aircraft systems and the required peripheral equipment.

Miller said the equipment wouldn’t be purchased until a policy is in place for its use citywide and within the police department, probably by late winter or early spring.

The drone would be outfitted with heat-detection equipment that would help authorities canvass areas when there’s a search, he said. Miller said a drone with a forward-looking infrared camera would have helped the department when it was looking for a child who ran away in the Augusta Circle area and hid. He said that although the child was found in the containment zone the department had set up, it took multiple hours because the child was hiding.

Miller said anybody who pilots the unmanned aircraft system would have to be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. He said every mission would be recorded and documentation would note who operated the drone, how long it was flown, and what the result was.

The chief said the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office’s unmanned aircraft system was flown during protests in front of the Confederate soldier monument at Springwood Cemetery in August 2017.

Miller said the U.S. Supreme Court has clear restrictions on how drones can be used by law enforcement. He said that except in public spaces such as parks and streets, police couldn’t use unmanned aircraft systems to further an investigation without obtaining a search warrant.

Public safety drones by the numbers


State and local public safety agencies in the U.S. that have drones.


More law enforcement agencies in U.S. own drones than manned aircraft.


States that have at least one statewide public safety agency with drones.


South Carolina public safety agencies that own drones.


Public safety agency in Greenville County that owns a drone (Greenville County Sheriff’s Office).

Source: Bard College Center for the Study of the Drone

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