Winston Co. Sheriff’s Department drone saving lives and saving money after nearly 200 successful flights

LOUISVILLE, Miss. (WCBI) – In its first full year of operation, the Winston County Sheriff’s Department’s new drone completed 195 successful flights and the sheriff believes it is a game-changer for his agency.

“When you can fly this over a 100-acre area in less than an hour, where it would take a search team half a day to search, that is huge in the time saved and how quickly you can locate a missing or lost or hurt person,” Sheriff Jason Pugh says.

According to the department, it would have cost a Mississippi Highway Patrol helicopter $18,400 to fly as many hours as their drone did in 2021. For years, the Winston County Sheriff’s Department has been trying to find a better way to conduct search and rescue missions throughout the rough terrain in the surrounding area without having to expend so much manpower and resources.

“With a lot of brush, a lot of (tree) limbs, it’s dangerous to searchers,” he says, “You have people fall, get hurt, break legs, that sort of thing.”

But in late January 2021, the department found their answer in the form of the EVO II Dual 640T.

“I can cover 2-square miles in about 20 to 30 minutes,” says the drone pilot Deputy Scott Kohrs. “Which would take 10 to 20 deputies and volunteers at least three hours to do.”

The drone has a max flight time of 40 minutes, can hover for up to 35 minutes and can fly as far as four miles away. In its first year, the drone helped deputies find two fugitives, three elderly adults with dementia and three children, as well as aiding in four fire support missions.

“When you have children, dementia patients or elderly in the woods, finding them and finding them quickly is critical to their survival,” Sheriff Pugh says.

The man behind the drone, Deputy Kohrs, has become adept at coordinating with ground crews and knowing how different environments affect the drone’s thermal camera.

“With radio communications with the ground crew search teams, we can actually coordinate our movements,” Deputy Kohrs says. “Where I can actually talk someone onto a heat signature that I identify.”

That kind of situation happened Saturday as the sheriff’s department searched for an arson suspect.

“I was one of the searchers in the woods and had come within 10 feet of him myself without being able to spot him the way he was camouflaged,” Sheriff Pugh says. “But he couldn’t hide from that thermal imagery on that drone.”

The drone has even been requested to fly missions in Neshoba, Kemper and Webster counties.

“It has definitely saved lives, saved save taxpayers money and saved danger to officers,” the sheriff says.

The $15,000 drone was purchased by the department with the help of several private donors. Sheriff Pugh says they will soon be training a second deputy to pilot the drone.

He also added that in the next three weeks, they will be testing a program that will stream the live drone footage to phones, tablets and other devices.

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