Sheriff Shows Off First-in-Virginia Drone

The Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office on Friday demonstrated something that no other Virginia locality has: a drone equipped to track down people enrolled in Project Lifesaver.

Project Lifesaver is a program to help keep track of people with autism, dementia, or who are otherwise prone to wandering off and getting lost. Family members can equip them with a compact, waterproof radio transmitter on a wrist strap. If they wander off, the sheriff’s office can quickly hone in on the transmitter’s signal, dramatically cutting down the time it takes to find them.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure that we find them as quickly as possible,” said Sheriff Michael Chapman. “We have over 100 people that are part of our Project Lifesaver program right now. It’s been in existence since 2010, we’ve saved 23 people, and usually we do it in about a half an hour or less.”

Project Lifesaver is a national program, and law enforcement usually use a hand-held radio antenna to hone in on the signal. But being at ground level limits the range of that antenna.

While many law enforcement offices are using drones, Chapman said Loudoun is the first locality in Virginia to have Project Lifesaver technology mounted on an unmanned aerial vehicle, expanding the range over which deputies can detect a radio wristband’s signal.

“We’re the first and only in Virginia right now, and only six locations throughout the United States have it connected with Project Lifesaver,” Chapman said.

The drone, which the sheriff’s office bought this year for nearly $100,000, also comes equipped with infrared detection and camera equipment. It has already been used once, although that person was found before the drone located him.

Chapman said the drone is primarily for Project Lifesaver, but it can also be used for other search-and-rescue operations and, with a warrant, in criminal cases. He added the sheriff’s office will try to allay privacy concerns with press releases and public notifications when the drone is launched and when it comes down.

“On any case that we do this, we want to make sure we have complete transparency with the community,” Chapman said. “We don’t want anybody to think that we’re going to launch this and be spying on people or whatever.”

Tom and Heidi Bunkua were on hand for a demonstration of the drone. Their five-year-old son is enrolled in Project Lifesaver. They said he is “very quick” and has a history of running.

“We had an incident where he escaped from the gym, a very high end gym that assured us they had many safety precautions and they were able to take care of children with autism with zero problems,” Heidi Bunkua said. “And we found out two days later, after it happened, that he had escaped, and another parent saw him from the window running out of the gym playing with rocks.”

Now, their son wears a Project Lifesaver wristband 24 hours a day, even to go swimming. The Bunkuas said they were relieved to find out about the project.

“It just takes one little wiggle for him to get loose and run away in a crowd, and when we go to the parks, you never know,” said Tom Bunkua. “And when we go on vacation too, this program’s nationwide, so we just call the local sheriff’s office at that location and they’ll have a sheriff knowing that our child will be down there.”

Sheriff’s deputies demonstrated the drone by launching from Morven Park, searching for a radio wristband. The drone honed in on the signal on Old Waterford Road, and deputies located the wristband—just the transmitter, with nobody wearing it for the demonstration—in about a half hour.

To find out more about Project Lifesaver or to enroll, contact the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office at 703-777-0407 or visit https://sheriff.loudoun.gov/?nid=260.

rgreene@loudounnow.com
@RenssGreene

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