Flying high above Kandiyohi County without ever leaving the ground

·4 min read

Jun. 28—WILLMAR — One of the best views of the city of Willmar and the surrounding countryside, from a height of about 300 feet, can be found without ever leaving the ground at the Kandiyohi County Emergency Management Office in the county Law Enforcement Center.

Ace Bonnema, deputy emergency management director, is one of the lucky ones able to see that view, thanks to a growing fleet of drones the department has purchased over the last few years.

Of course, the drones are not toys. They are an important piece to Kandiyohi County's emergency management plan, offering another way to keep residents and property safe.

Bonnema said the county obtained its first drone in 2017 after learning that Alliance Pipeline, which owns one of the pipelines through Kandiyohi County, offered a grant program to purchase drones for emergency management purposes. The county decided to apply, and was a awarded a $5,000 grant to purchase its first drones for emergency management, all with pipeline safety in mind.

"With the theory that pipelines don't always run close to the road," Bonnema said. "So this would be a good way for us to get information back to firefighters."

The grant helped purchase two drones, a more professional style plus a training drone for staff.

Today, Kandiyohi County Emergency Management has five drones, including one purchased this year. The Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners in early May approved accepting a $5,000 grant from the Pembina Corporation to purchase a new drone with superior capabilities to the older equipment in the department's fleet. This includes a better thermal camera, longer battery life and the ability to fly in stronger winds, a definite plus in a country where the winds often blow.

While the drones were purchased mostly from grants through pipeline companies, the county is able to use them for a great many things. In 2020, with the coronavirus pandemic causing most in-person events and meetings to be canceled, the annual County Board driving tour of the Public Works road projects went virtual. Bonnema, using one of the county's drones, flew over the completed road projects, giving the commissioners a bird's eye view of the work.

"We just flew the routes with the drone," Bonnema said. "It was good training for us."

The county also uses drones for damage assessments after storms, even traveling to help other counties and cities in need.

"We went up and helped after the Watkins tornado," Bonnema said. The drones gave the team a better look at the damage to structures than what would have been possible just from the ground.

Drones can also be a big help with fires, whether it is structure fires or larger brush fires.

"We can look for hot spots. We can give the fire chief a better perspective of where he should send people," Bonnema said.

The Kandiyohi County Sheriff's Office and the Willmar Police Department have their own drones, but the law enforcement agencies and Emergency Management help each other when needed. The drones can be a great help in missing person searches, especially with the superior thermal cameras on the newer drones. Most recently, Emergency Management assisted in the search for the drowning victim in Big Kandiyohi Lake.

"We had four or five at the same time," and were able to search different areas of the lake at different heights, Bonnema said.

Flying a drone, especially if the person wants to do more than just fly low for pleasure, is more complicated than just turning the drone on and taking off. The Federal Aviation Administration has a long list of rules and regulations drone pilots of all kinds are supposed to follow. Bonnema said as a government and public entity, the county follows all as carefully as possible, to set a good example for others and to show the public the county is using its assets responsibly.

"We need to make sure we are following all the rules," Bonnema said.

Bonnema is a licensed drone pilot, currently the only one with Emergency Management, but all who fly the drones have been trained. As long as Bonnema is within grabbing distance of the drone controller, others can fly the drone without being licensed.

"There is definitely training involved," Bonnema said.

There are many, many rules regarding drone flying. A drone flyer is supposed to have a visual observer nearby, watching the drone and the surrounding area. Drones aren't supposed to be flown over people or near crowds. There are certain properties, such as jails and airports, where drone flying is only allowed with special permission.

"Keeping an eye out for planes, helicopters is huge," Bonnema said.

Bonnema has plans to keep improving the county's drone program, though the pandemic did slow things down a bit. The next step is to get the emergency rescue squad trained with the drones. There is also the possibility of getting more people licensed as pilots, so Bonnema doesn't have to be present whenever the drones are used in the field.

"We have a decent amount (of drones) now," Bonnema said, and that future grant money will probably go to upgrading and replacing the number the county has.

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