Some of the drone footage in the video above provided by the Fort Wayne Police Department’s Air Support Unit.

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – They flew drones over ponds and wooded areas and even down a creek throughout the course of four days late last week, all in hopes of finding a missing man suffering from Alzheimer’s.

They used drones again to map out a fatal motorcycle crash on West State Boulevard on Monday morning, and then did the same thing for a car crash at a motel that left another man dead hours later.

By mid-week, they were using drones in an effort to search for a missing child – she was later found in her house – and then on Thursday afternoon they fired one up to find a man who had run away from officers on foot after a traffic stop.

A current “first responder” drone used by Fort Wayne Police.

To say the Fort Wayne Police Department has expanded the use of its drone unit since its inception five years ago is an understatement.

And with 10 new drones on the way, officials are poised to expand it even further this year with a program that will turn a drone into a “first responder” at potentially dangerous or chaotic emergency scenes.

“We went from where officers would be, ‘Eh, the drone guys, whatever,’ to now where they’re call for us all the time,” said Officer Matt Rowland, a 17-year-veteran who is one of the original members of the department’s Air Support Unit, which handles the drones. “A lot more officers are thinking, ‘Hey, we can use a drone for this, we can use a drone for that.'”

“It’s quite amazing to see what you can use one for.”

Slow beginning

The Air Support Unit was the brainchild of Lt. Jon Bowers, who began convincing department leadership of the value of drone use back in 2015.

Two years later, the unit was born.

Its initial make up consisted of two hostage negotiators and two licensed pilots on the department, Rowland said. None of the members were full-time to the unit, and initially the three drones the unit had were used to provide overwatch for the department’s Emergency Services and Critical Response teams when someone barricaded themselves into a home or building.

That first year, the unit flew 106 flights, according to Fort Wayne Police annual reports. The following year that number rose to 366.

Gradually, the unit added a few more members here and there and updated its drone technology as it became available. Officers also began to take notice, and police drone flights in 2019 rose to 1,600 – a roughly 1,400 percent increase from its first year.

The unit at one point acquired a set of drones with better cameras and more advanced thermal imaging, and that just so happened to coincide with the protests in downtown Fort Wayne in the wake of the George Floyd killing during the summer of 2020

It opened a lot of eyes in what these drones could do.

The unit’s drone flights increased another 50 percent that year, as well.

“We flew these drones almost as much as we flew our previous generation of drones in just three weeks,” Rowland said.

Shortly thereafter, the drones were being called in for everything from mapping out crash reconstructions and crime scenes – they use imaging to take measurements that are accurate within hundredths of an inch – to helping officers search for missing people.

Drones at crash scenes alone have almost cut in half the amount of time it takes investigators to gather data and get a road clear, Rowland said.

Plus, the imaging they provide has high “jury appeal” should a case ever go to court.

In one case, prosecutors asked the unit to look over drone images taken at a crime scene and measure the distance between a van and a knife someone had found laying on the ground.

“We’ve used them to try to find guns thrown on roofs,” Rowland said.

The drones are even called in to alert Fort Wayne Firefighters of any potential hot spots while they battle large blazes. The fire department, which has its own drones, will in turn assist the police unit whenever needed, and both departments use drones to investigate possible arsons.

Rowland called the cooperation between the two drone units unique and something he has not seen elsewhere.

Last year, the police department bought drones designed to go indoors, providing another invaluable asset to officers.

These are now used to scope out what might be happening inside a home or building officers plan to enter, providing them a view or a livestream video of what might be awaiting them once they breach a doorway or window, Rowland said.

The next step is getting drones to volatile scenes – before officers ever arrive.

‘Leaps and bounds’

Today, the drone unit consists of 10 members with a fleet of more than 20 drones.

Rowland and Officer Mike Hickman – a licensed pilot before he joined the force – are now full-time members who handle the maintenance and various training while still flying missions for the unit.

The city’s recent purchase 10 new “first responder drones” – plus extra batteries for a rough total of $84,000 – will now allow each unit member to have a drone ready to use in his or her patrol vehicle at all times, Rowland said.

A “drone museum” of the previous generation of drones the FWPD once used now sits in Officer Matt Rowland’s office.

Members take turns working on-call duty, so the department has a drone and an operator at its disposal all day, every day.

The old drones being replaced by new ones will be used as backups or for new officers if the unit is able to take on new members.

“It’s been growing by leaps and bounds,” said Rowland of the unit.

Soon, the department plans to unveil its “Drone First Responder Program.”

Headed up by Hickman, this will allow the unit to place a drone at one of four strategic locations across the city on a daily basis.

An officer will monitor potentially dangerous or high priority 911 calls in that area and, when needed, deploy a drone to a scene before first responders arrive.

Since those calling emergency dispatch may be under duress or panicked, the goal is to get those responding officers a clearer and more accurate picture – through real time video or photos – of what might be happening at that particular scene.

The program is based off one designed by the Chula Vista Police Department in Southern California, which has been using drones in this matter as a de-escalation tool.

One of the more famous drone videos Chula Vista officers show other departments in demonstrations and training depicts a man who at first glance appears to be waiving a gun around in public. The drone, though, captured a moment where the man holds the ‘gun’ up to his mouth and lights a cigarette, Rowland said.

He only had a novelty cigarette lighter.

The drone gave officers information that the man was not likely armed, Rowland said, thereby allowing them to avoid a possible volatile situation upon arriving.

Officials do stress, though, the drones in this program will not be used for surveillance.

“We want to be clear, we’re not spying on people,” Hickman said. “The drone will be sitting on the ground, stationary. It will not be actively flying around the city. It will only launch for a 911 call.”

Rowland added that the unit is as transparent with the public as possible, and is almost always willing to give demonstrations on how the drones work. He’s also willing to answer any questions people might have about the unit, and encourages the public to visit its Instagram page or its website.

And he said nobody should be afraid to call the office at 427-2385 with any questions.