“I’ve always been a flight enthusiast,” said Kenosha County Sheriff’s Sgt. Bryan Easter, who commands the department’s 13-person drone unit. Easter, who has a degree in criminal just from Gateway Technical College, has been with the department for just under 11 years.
Easter started as a patrol deputy and has served in the traffic interdiction unit, as a process server, in the courts, conveyance and as a patrol sergeant supervising second shift for about a year. He is now also the commander of the Sheriff Mobile Command unit.
The drone unit currently has two drones, a DJI Matrice 210 and a DJI Phantom, with plans to possibly add another one in their fleet next year.
Q: What got you interested in a career in law enforcement?
A: I always thought it was an interesting career. And actually, when I first went to school, I went for computer programming. And while I was in school with that, I kind of (thought) I don’t really know if I want to do that for the rest of my life. But actually it was when I was working out at Prime Outlets, I was doing a security job out there, I was working hand-in-hand with Pleasant Prairie Police, because they do off-duty security out there.
And it was once I was working with them, just kind of seeing how cool the job was and how much fun they had with it, that’s really what kind of turned me and made me switch my major in college.
So what got you interested in being a drone operator?
A: I’ve always been a flight enthusiast. My grandpa, when I was younger, used to own a fleet of planes, and he used to take us up all the time. On his property in southern Illinois, he actually used to land his plane on his property. It was just always a thing. I always became interested in that, and like I said, I’ve always held that interest. I have my own drone at home that I use ... and then we implemented our drone unit here, I volunteered to obviously be involved in it, and I was selected as the commander of the unit.
Q: How long has there been a drone unit here?
A: We got our first drone a few years ago and that’s our smaller Phantom, but it was kind just like an as-needed basis and our drone unit really kind of solidified come about January, February of this year. So, it’s going to be almost a year that we’ve officially created our drone unit and got our operators and made sure that we certified our operators.
We have 13 total operators. You figure with an agency our size, when an emergency call comes out, we need to be able to send out a page. If we only have four or five guys, maybe there were a couple guys out of town, some are working or in training, so 13 is right about that right number where we should get the appropriate response when we send out that page.
Q: So, what’s it like to fly one?
Exciting. It can be a little nerve-wracking at times. Because,you know, in a perfect scenario, if you’re in a nice open field without obstacles around, it makes it much more relaxed when you’re flying the aircraft. Obviously, that’s not where the majority of our calls are. Sometimes they’re in the inner city, or around buildings and trees and power lines, so you have to be extremely cognizant of what your surroundings are when you’re flying the aircraft.
When we deploy our aircraft we have two operators on scene at all times. One is the PIC, which is the pilot in command, or RPIC, which is the remote pilot in command. And then we have one VO, which is our visual observer. So they maintain a visual line of sight on that aircraft at all times to make sure that whoever is actually manipulating the controls isn’t going to be flying it into an obstacle.
Q: So what is the training that you go through to be a drone operator?
A: Well, we hold monthly trainings for all of our operators, so every month we get hands-on experience for the flight controls and just doing different scenarios — whether it’s search and rescue, doing pattern searches, stuff like that. Because it’s completely different nomenclature when you’re up in the air getting that bird’s eye view, versus doing stuff on the ground. We all also did a training with a local company that prepped us for our part 107 certification through the Federal Aviation Administration, so we’re all certified operators through the FAA.
Q: Are you also a private pilot then, too?
A: Like of an actual manned aircraft? No. Actually, my grandpa, he was actually an instructor too. He invited me down, it’s one of my biggest regrets, when I was 16 years old, he invited me to go down there and get my pilot’s license. … Nope, never actually did that.
Well, maybe sometime.
It always holds a place in my heart. I love being up in the air. I just find it fascinating and fun. I like the whole process.
Q: So what additional capabilities do drones give the department?
I would say that one of the biggest ones is the fact that we don’t have to put somebody in harm’s way to get a good view or overall picture of what’s going on in a certain scenario. This model, in particular, obviously we have the FLIR (forward looking infrared) camera and then this one (gestures to a second camera) is the Z30. The zoom capability on it is just insane. It’s great. I could put this thing up in the air and zoom in far, far away and I know what’s actually going on in a particular house without even remotely near the scene. So I would definitely say that that’s one of the biggest blessings of having this on the unit.
Search and rescue, like the FLIR, obviously, that is great when we’re looking, when we’re doing a search and rescue mission. It works a little bit better in colder weather, because obviously the heat signatures are going to pop a little bit more on the screen. Getting a bird’s eye view of a certain scenario, like when we have major scenes. Sometimes, we won’t use the FLIR, we won’t use the zoom camera, but with another camera, which is like a 12 or 14 megapixel camera, we can take aerial photographs of the scene. We can do an autonomous mission also, which is basically programming a certain area, usually like a little map on the screen … and it will actually just go up and fly and do it’s little grid pattern, take all the pictures and then come back down and you can upload all of those images in some software and create like a 2D or 3D map, which is great when you’re documenting a scene for evidence.
Q: Are other agencies using them also?
A: They are becoming more mainstream, the drones, in general. There are a lot of agencies that do have them, but there are still some that don’t. We’ve gotten a couple calls for assistance in using a drone and actually going out to a scene. … I’m seeing that more and more agencies are utilizing the drone because of the capability that they bring to a department. As long as you can get somebody that’s certified and go through the proper channels, I think that having a UAS (unmanned aerial system) or a drone is beneficial.
Q: What do you like most about your job?
A: Overall, I would say it’s just the variety of what I get to do. No day is the same, and I stay busy. There’s so many different positions that you can jump around (in) here at the sheriff’s department.
Q: Any hobbies or stuff that you like to do for fun when you’re not at work?
Travel. Me and my family, traveling is really big with us. There’s so much to see in this world. We try to go quite a few different places every year. If it’s not traveling, golf.