Dogs and drones

A bloodhound named Daisy waits as her handler, North Dakota State Trooper Cody Harstad, straps on a vest identifying her as a member of the State Patrol before beginning a tracking exercise June 11. 

Brandi Jewett, Grand Forks Herald

GRAND FORKS -- After taking a deep sniff from a plastic baggie, Daisy bolted into the thick prairie brush in search of her target.

Meanwhile, an unmanned aircraft high above scanned below for the same prey.

It’s not the first time the bloodhound and her handler, North Dakota State Trooper Cody Harstad, have hit the trail in search of a person, but it is the first time they’ve had help from what could become a routine partner.

Equipped with video and thermal cameras, the aircraft -- operated by Grand Forks area law enforcement officers -- allowed the officers to monitor both the K-9 team and a suspect hiding among the foliage.

This particular search was a drill, part of a monthly training exercise members of the Northeast Unmanned Aircraft Systems Unit undergo to keep their skills sharp and research new applications for unmanned aircraft, also known as drones.

“What we’d really like to do is see how effective we can be with (a K-9 team),” Al Frazier, a deputy for the Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Department and an aviation professor at the University of North Dakota.

Hide and seek

During the unit’s June training session, Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Deputy Lee Mewes was tasked with hiding among the brush and trees of UND’s Oakville Prairie, a biological research site located about 15 miles west of Grand Forks.

Back at the mission base about half a mile away, Cpl. Tim Shuh with the Grand Forks Police Department piloted an aircraft called a Qube and, along with fellow officer Mike Gavere, scanned its video feed for signs of life.

Shuh and Gavere switched approaches between the first and second trial run, which allowed them to keep on eye on Harstad and Daisy by following them out from base rather than flying into the field first and then trying to spot the them.

“The second time, I kept the dog in the bottom of the screen and kind of looked out, and we were able to pick them up and a little bit earlier and buy Cody a little bit of time before he found the guy,” Shuh said.

The operators were able to see Mewes on the thermal camera just before the K-9 unit uncovered his hiding place. A white blob marked Mewes’ location among a thicket of trees while two more white spots represented Harstad and Daisy.

“When I was hiding in the trees, you guys said over the radio you had a heat signature,” Mewes said at a debriefing following the flights. “Then I had a visual on the dog and she was probably a good 120 feet away from me at that point.”

Since the application is a new one, procedures and best practices still require some refining. Those details include determining what height is best for the aircraft to fly or when drone operators should tell dog handlers to stop when a heat signature is detected.

“I think the more we practice and the more we work, the better it will work,” Shuh said.

Other research

Partnering with a dog tracking unit isn’t the only research planned for training sessions this summer.

The unit also is assisting with biology research taking place at Oakville Prairie. UND biology staff and law enforcement officers experimented with an unmanned aircraft photographing and mapping vegetation at the site on June 11.

Biology professor Robert Newman said the aircraft could offer a faster alternative to slow manual photography and more detailed imagery than that produced by photographing plants from a plane.

“We thought that UAS would be a good intermediate so we could get lower altitude and higher resolution and see the details,” he said. “One of the challenges of doing that is knowing what you’re looking at in the imagery.”

That work will pave the way for another research project UAS unit members hope gets underway later this summer. The unit is working with the state Attorney General’s Office to procure some marijuana plants for a test in August.

The plants would be placed among the prairie growth and officers would use the drone’s sensor — in this case a multispectral camera — to see if the difference in foliage could be spotted from the air.

“If we were asked by a narcotic unit to go out and search for marijuana, we throw the multispectral camera on there and and differentiate between that and the native foliage,” Frazier said.

When it’s not conducting research, the unit does use its four aircraft for other mission sets, including search and rescue, traffic monitoring and photographing crime scenes and accident sites.

Since its inception in 2012, the unit has responded to 28 calls, the most recent of which came June 10. Officers used a drone to photograph the aftermath of a train striking and killing a man in the 5500 block of DeMers Avenue in Grand Forks.

The unit has authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly day or night in 19 North Dakota and Minnesota counties. It also can fly nationwide in the daytime in uncontrolled airspace.

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