When an 11-year-old went missing in Pitt County in February, Amelia Frasure took to the skies to help find her.
Frasure is a drone operator for the Greenville Police Department, a job that is on the cutting edge of how technology is saving lives and improving capabilities in law enforcement and other services provided by the city.
“One of our main goals is searching for missing people, enhancing safety for the public and enhancing officer safety,” said Frasure, a three-year veteran with the department who recently became the drone program’s coordinator and technology officer.
Frasure and three more of the department’s operators deployed drones to help the Pitt County Sheriff’s Office search for a missing girl east of the city. Her team was tasked with searching a 1,000-acre area that had a combination of houses, outbuildings, open fields and wooded areas.
Using digital maps to divide the area into grids, a drone with thermal imaging equipment was launched. When a human-like image appeared, drones with spotlights were sent in so the searchers could verify what they were seeing, she said.
As the drones searched outlying areas, searchers on foot were able to focus elsewhere and the girl was located in a barn not far from her home. The drone team had already covered half its search area when it received word the girl had been found.
“We are now able to quickly begin searches in remote areas for missing persons or wanted suspects and provide that real-time information to officers in the field,” Greenville Police Chief Mark Holtzman said. “Drones have already aided officers in the safe apprehension of dangerous persons and flown many hours in search of lost or endangered persons.”
Officially unmanned aerial systems, drones are aircraft without onboard pilots that can be operated remotely by an on-ground pilot or through a programmed onboard flight system.
While they started out as devices used by the military, the equipment now has multiple uses in areas such as law enforcement, real estate, surveying and agriculture, to name a few. Greenville has incorporated drones into law enforcement, marketing and other activities.
“Our department is always looking for ways to improve our delivery of service to the community and increase the safety of our officers,” Holtzman said. “Having a viable drone program at GPD has proven itself on both fronts.”
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there are 857,266 registered drones in the United States with more than half registered for recreational use. Nearly 265,800 people are certified remote pilots.
North Carolina has 4,027 registered drone operators, according to FAA data. Forty-four are in Pitt County, including 28 in Greenville.
The sky is not the limit
Frasure was involved in a situation where multiple people ran into the woods at night when an officer stopped a vehicle matching the description of a car believed to be involved in a shots-fired incident.
“We didn’t want (the officer) to get in the woods with these people when we couldn’t see. So he stopped and we deployed the drones,” Frasure said.
Using a combination of thermal imaging and spotlights, the three suspects were located and Frasure guided a K-9 team who brought the suspects out.
“If everybody can go home safe at the end of the day, we know we’ve done our job,” Frasure said.
Drone tracking also allowed officers to capture an image of a suspect tossing a weapon over a fence while running from arresting officers.
The police department’s drone unit currently has nine individuals, including Frasure, who is the only full-time operator. The others are officers, supervisors and detectives who work in other areas of the department.
Frasure wants to recruit more operators with the goal of having two operators per shift.
“Even with the incredible drone team here at GPD, I feel we are still at the dawn of an exciting period of innovation in law enforcement; one where the sky is no longer the limit,” Holtzman said.
“Drones, unmanned aircraft, unmanned vehicles are becoming more prevalent in law enforcement and public safety in general,” Frasure said. “I would highly recommend to any other agency to start doing research in this area, it’s only going to benefit the public and your officers.”
The Pitt County Sheriff’s Office plans to implement a drone program in the coming months, said Sgt. Lee Darnell, the sheriff’s public relations and information officer.
Last month, the Pitt County Board of Commissioners submitted a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration requesting that the sheriff’s office be allowed to operate drones under the agency’s public aircraft operator rules. The letter certifies that the sheriff’s office meets the legal requirements to operate a drone program.
The sheriff’s office already has several deputies who are trained in drone operations and have received their FAA licenses.
It will cost about $101,000 to start the program, Darnell said. The money is already in the sheriff’s budget.
“We are very excited to be able to offer this level of service throughout Pitt County,” Darnell said. “The use of technology in these ways can make law-enforcement a much safer endeavor while making a much safer community. This program can pay dividends for all emergency responders in the county and benefit every citizen.”
Surveying, selling the city
Capturing the scope of a 300-acre stormwater improvement project propelled the City of Greenville to use drones outside law enforcement.
Aaron Hines, a communications specialist with the city, has been in the forefront of its usage.
When Hines joined city government more than five years ago he was hired to work in graphic and web design.
“Once I was here I worked really hard at showing them the value of photography and what we can do with it and it’s become a major part of what I do now,” Hines said.
He was creating advertising for the recreation and parks department and realized most of its stock photographs were old.
“It seemed like a natural fit to get updated images to help show sports, recreation and parks programs, public works and what they do on a daily basis,” Hines said. “There also was a big push to tell Greenville’s story. That’s something that’s been consistent the whole time I’ve been here.”
Hines had used drones recreationally when he was younger and when he learned the city was looking for employees to operate a drone he volunteered.
After taking an in-house course, he used drones to capture crowd images of festivals and other city events.
The city’s engineering department then approached him about documenting the Town Creek Culvert project, a $33 million effort to repair, replace and reconstruct nearly 300 acres of stormwater infrastructure in the downtown Greenville area.
The project required digging 25-foot trenches to remove the old system and shut downtown streets and intersections for multiple weeks and months at a time.
“It was the only way to show the scale of the project and how it fit in the area,” Hines said. “You couldn’t do that from the ground level. Having a drone really gave us the ability to see not just an overhead view and see how deep they are digging down, but how it’s laid out and how it’s spread across the city.
“It didn’t take long after we got (those images) that the demand for drone imagery really took off in the city,” Hines said.
Hines works with public works to capture aerial images that aid with capital improvement project planning. The city’s Geographic Information Systems office occasionally calls on him to get up-to-date images for mapping.
He also photographs events such as the creation of the Unite Against Racism street mural in late 2020.
“I knew immediately, judging by the scale of the project, that aerial imaging would be critical to illustrating it properly,” he said. “There was not a single vantage point from ground level that you could see the entire installation so it made sense that capturing it from the air would be an important part of it.”
Drone photography lends context, Hines said. When working on the Town Creek Culvert project, he found it’s sometimes difficult for people to comprehend maps, but a photograph made it easier for people to see where work was taking place.
“It gives you context on how something fits into the overall landscape. It gives you a different perspective. It’s seeing the forest instead of the trees,” Hines said.
It provides a perspective few will ever see, said Brock Letchworth, the city’s public information officer and communications manager.
“Aaron’s use of the drone has drastically improved the quality and variety of photos that we are able to utilize to help tell the city’s story,” Letchworth said. “He has been able to provide a bird’s eye view of city events, landscapes, and more from a viewpoint that many of us would never be able to get.
Letchworth said Hines has done a great job capturing images of the city’s skyline and newly opened Wildwood Park, but one photograph stands out to him.
“The one photo that continues to stand out to me was one he captured during a Freeboot Friday event when Parmalee was performing,” Letchworth said. “The shot, which was taken from behind the stage at Five Points Plaza, provided a unique look at the large crowd and festive atmosphere. It is an image that has helped us and other organizations promote the “play” aspect of when we say live, work, and play in Greenville.”