Sheriff’s office expands drone fleet

October 7, 2023

Sheriff’s office expands drone fleet

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief

LUDINGTON — The Mason County Sheriff’s Office has reached new heights, literally. While the sheriff’s office has utilized a drone for the past several years, it recently has increased its fleet to include thermal imaging and tactical response drones. 

“We started using a drone around 2018,” Mason County Sheriff Kim Cole said. “At that time, Sgt. Shayne Eskew, who is now retired, began using a light-weight camera drone to document crash scenes. Ron Perhson, a Mason County native and seasonal resident, donated the funds for our first drone.”  

From left: Roberson, Warmuskerken, Pranger.

For many years the sheriff’s office was assisted at crashes by Pere Marquette Township Fire Department’s ladder truck. 

“Using the fire truck was a practice that we started many years ago,” Cole said. “By documenting a crash scene from the air, investigators are able to have a better understanding on the causes of the crash and also to have evidence in court. PMFD was always there to assist us and we are very appreciative for their service. But, the drones now give us the ability to capture a far more diverse view of the scene and also to operate more efficiently.” 

The sheriff’s office then purchased additional camera drones with them mostly being used for scene documentation and some limited search and rescue. 

“Technology changes and, just like any piece of equipment, we have to upgrade to meet those changes,” Cole said. 

Recently, with the assistance of funding from Amber Township, a private citizen and the county, the sheriff’s office has purchased two more drones: a large enterprise drone capable of thermal imaging, photography, and even carrying small items; and a small FPV (first person view) drone that can be used indoors. 

The department’s primary drone pilots are Sgt. Matt Warmuskerken and Sgt. Seth Pranger, along with Reserve Dep. Mike Roberson. All three are Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certified unmanned aircraft system (UAS) pilots, a requirement by law for any drone pilot who flies a drone commercially. 

“The drones have drastically changed the way we respond and investigate several different types of situations,” Warmuskerken said. “They have made our crash investigation more efficient and allow us to be on scene less time, which means we can open up the road to traffic much sooner.” 

Pranger said a drone was used earlier in the summer for a search and rescue on the Pere Marquette River. 

“We were able to put the drone in the air and locate the victims within a few minutes. Based on the drone’s location, we then got the GPS coordinates and sent a boat to the victims. Typically this type of operation could have taken much longer.” 

Cole said the rescue river itself paid for the drone. 

“In that particular case we had a little boy who was hanging onto a log, in the current,” Cole said. “It’s likely that had we not been able to locate him when we did, thanks to the drone, the outcome may have been tragic.” 

“The new enterprise drone is able to withstand very high winds,” Warmuskerken said. “We can get it up in the air and determine the number of victims and their status and relay that information back to rescue boats, even over Lake Michigan.” 

The drone was used earlier this week to assist Free Soil/Meade Fire Department determine the size of a fire in the Manistee National Forest.

“I was able to put the drone up in the air and look for hot spots,” Warmuskerken said. “We were then able to confirm that the fire had been contained.” 

The smaller FPV drone, which is operated with goggles, is intended for indoor use. 

“This drone can be used in a tactical situation,” Warmuskerken said. “If there were a hostage situation, we can fly it in tight spots, around corners, etc. and assess a situation.” 

The department currently has four drones in service. 

“We are very thankful for the financial support that we have received,” Cole said. “Amber Township has been very generous to helping our department along with the private citizen who donated funds to help us. These items are no longer luxury items but necessary tools to help us serve and protect the citizens of our county.”


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