Anita Oh, WMAZ
On Tuesday, Macon-Bibb County officials are expected to discuss whether to employ drones for emergency management across the county.
It’s part of a proposed deal with companies Olaeris and Haeco to better respond to emergencies and disasters.
The memorandum agreement, proposed by Mayor Robert Reichert, would cost the county $5.7 million over five years once the drone fleet is fully operational.
Reichert says they’re looking at a fleet of about 15 to 17 aircraft, which operate out of individual hangars. Those hangars would be strategically placed across the county, Reichert said, possibly in conjunction with fire stations.
“We are very excited about the prospect of deploying 21st century technology as first responders,” Reichert said.
It could be response to a burning building, storm damage that a road crew can’t access, an armed robbery – anything that sets off an alarm with E-911 responders.
However, officials say the drones cannot be used for surveillance without a warrant and must comply with all state and federal privacy regulations.
The agreement also requires satisfactory personnel training and all required Federal Aviation Administration certifications, along with a 5-year warranty that covers all maintenance and repair for the fleet.
“It covers everything,” Reichert told 13WMAZ Monday morning. “It is my understanding that unless they show up with a system that is licensed by the FAA with all of the approvals they have to have for flying beyond the line of sight… then they’ve got to put up the system, deploy it and show us that it works as they said it would before we are obligated to pay the purchase price.”
“$96,000 a month sounds really high at first, then you realize it’s doing the work of 5, 6, or $700,000 worth of manpower,” Ted Lindsley, CEO of Olaeris, said. “It covers everything with the guarantee of no further out-of-pocket costs to the county. Aviation insurance, maintenance repairs, certifications for all the pilots, training, and all the support. Not to mention the scramble encrypted bandwidth which is very expensive.”
According to the proposed agreement, Olaeris plans to integrate three fleets in three different states across the United States.
“We talked to over 100 cities,” Lindsley told 13WMAZ. “But our locations need to be strategic. Macon-Bibb is perfectly suited as a city/county with all united assets and is geographically well located.”
Lindsley says the aircraft are each bigger than a king-sized bed and designed to eventually replace helicopters.
“In five to ten years, [these drones] will be routine and our system will be transparent and report everything on our webpage,” Lindsley said. “If a neighbor sees a drone flying overhead, anyone will be able to access on our webpage when the drone was deployed, why and for how long.”
Lindsley says Olaeris has aligned with the American Civil Liberties Union in an effort to highlight that drones can be implemented safely and effectively without compromising privacy.
Officials say though privacy concerns are understandable, they will not be an issue considering the drones will only be used in emergency situations.
“I think the public will need to get used to them first,” Sheriff David Davis said. “They’re not rockets shooting out of the sky. They’re non-destructive, and they’re a very useful tool.”
“It’s my understanding that there are no privacy concerns because this would be purely deployed for response to a 911 call,” Reichert added.
County officials believe operating a manufacturing and maintenance hub for drones in Macon-Bibb County will positively impact the local economy.
In the midst of managing budget cuts and encouraging eligible employees to take a buyout and retire early, Reichert says the cost of the drone fleet is justified.
“This period of reduction is four years in length. But we’ve got to be building for tomorrow. As we’re trying to grow people and add people, we’ve got to have the infrastructure that we need to accommodate that growth, and this is part of that. So this is forward-thinking and future planning,” Reichert said.
Anthony Choi, a Mercer University School of Engineering professor, tells 13WMAZ drones are an exceptionally useful piece of technology.
“If you have the need to actually do a quick search and rescue or quick observation of an area, you can just take it out of a trunk and fly it. So that would take what, 2 to 3 minutes for that to occur,” Choi said.
“In terms of what you can gain from this, it depends on what you put on it,” Choi added. “Let’s say it’s a search-and-rescue in the dead of night and you’re trying to look for someone that’s having a heart attack, you can have one of these drones with a thermal imaging camera, and they can quickly find the victim’s heat body signature out of the surrounding area.”