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Aerial Innovation: How AU is Leading the Way in Keeping Communities Safe With Drones

Aerial Innovation: How AU is Leading the Way in Keeping Communities Safe With Drones

Public safety agencies—and the communities they serve— benefit from having “an eye in the sky.”

Until recently, that usually meant helicopters or airplanes. But only the largest and best-funded agencies can afford them. Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), have changed the game. They can be used in search and rescue operations, for assessing damage from natural disasters and for fighting fires. Their application is only limited by the imagination, though. And that’s why the Anderson University School of Public Service and Administration recently launched an innovative program with a unique focus: preparing homeland security and criminal justice students to keep people safe by flying drones.

“It’s an emerging technology,” said Dr. Howard Murphy, coordinator of the Homeland Security and Emergency Services program and associate professor in the Anderson University School of Public Service and Administration.

“Homeland security focuses on deterrence and prevention of major crimes and terrorism. Drones are effective in both of those types of operations. They allow you to monitor and surveil for any threats, especially toward critical infrastructure areas,” Dr. Murphy said. It’s more cost-effective, too—especially for smaller agencies.

Already far less expensive than a helicopter, the cost of professional drones has dropped dramatically since they were introduced, making them more accessible to agencies who need them. And the imaging technology has improved as well, with higher resolution, night vision and infrared capabilities, all of which go beyond the capability of what human eyes can see.

“Years ago, to purchase a professional drone suitable for search and rescue was upwards of $80,000. However, drone technology is so advanced and affordable now, you can get a professional drone with FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) for about $8,000,” said David Williams, a professor at the Anderson University School of Public Service and Administration.

Joshua Hawkins, director of the Anderson County Emergency Management Division, said his agency uses drones almost every day. While drones are an important part of searching for missing people and catching criminals, Hawkins said they are useful in other areas as well.

Take a recent tire fire, for example. “We were able to pinpoint hotspots using thermal technology, which allowed firefighters to focus on the spots where it was hottest under the ground, even when they couldn’t actually see flames. And it really sped the process up to put that fire out,” Hawkins said.

In another instance, the drones’ advanced imaging capability paired with accurate GPS helped first responders quickly find and rescue a group of students whose canoe capsized late at night.

“We were actually able to put up one of the drones, get over to them fairly quickly and determine it was them… We got our boat over to them really fast because we had a good location on them,” Hawkins said.

Even as drones have become less expensive and their technology has improved, the number of people who can use them effectively hasn’t kept pace.

“What’s needed are more public safety personnel trained in the use of drones for search and rescue, crime scene investigation and in other areas of public safety,” said Williams, who came to Anderson University after retiring from the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office as its administrative commander. “The number of uses is still being developed. How we might use this developing technology is only limited to our imagination.”

That’s where Anderson University comes in.

While there are drone programs offered at colleges and universities, few can be found within a criminal justice program, Williams said. Williams was recognized by South Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities (SCICU) with a 2023 Excellence in Teaching Award and received a $3,000 grant award for his project, Drones and Remote Piloting for Criminal Justice Education and Research, which is aimed at better preparing students to work with drone technology at law enforcement agencies.

“One of the things we’ve always tried to do is blend academic theory with real-world practical application and to put our students on the cutting edge of technology,” Williams said.

“However, in the case of drones, we also equip our students with knowledge that ensures they comply within the legal framework of state and federal law and the privacy concerns of the communities they are sworn to protect. Since drone technology is advancing faster than the law, this work continues to be challenging for criminal justice educators.”

Andrew Culp, a deputy sheriff with the York County Sheriff’s Office and a specialized team member in their drone unit, was the first graduate from Anderson University’s program to become a certified drone pilot. Culp said the School of Public Service and Administration opened professional doors for him that would not have been possible otherwise. He said his class instruction went beyond just the mechanics of flying a drone; it gave him in-depth exposure to constitutional law and other regulations affecting the use of drones in law enforcement work. As a result, while interning with the Chester County Sheriff’s Office before his graduation from AU, Culp wrote that agency’s first drone policy.

“That class, along with getting certified through AU’s program, was a big reason I was able to get into York County’s drone program so quickly,” he said. “Usually there’s a wait period of 18 months prior to being put on a specialized team, but seeing my experience, they were willing to waive that for me so I could jump right in and start flying.”

Gabriel Lindner, a homeland security major, was the first in his class this year to achieve his Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Part 107 commercial drone pilots’ license.

“My family has a history in aerospace. My dad’s an educator and a former pilot, so that’s what sparked my interest, and then knowing that it would be handy for the future,” Lindner said. “I’m not sure exactly what I’m going to be doing yet, but certification is always good to have.”

“Our team at the School of Public Service and Administration is trying to provide undergraduate students with real-world licenses, certifications—anything that’s in their career field. For instance, Dr. Howard Murphy provides instruction for certifications in CERT classes, Basic First Aid, CPR, AED, Stop the Bleed (combat medical care for active shooter situations), intermediate and advanced incident command systems, all kinds of things,” Williams said.

For Markel Samuel, a cybersecurity major, the drone course was eye-opening. “Drones are at the forefront of evolving security measures and other forms of technology,” he said. “As we continue to utilize drone technology more and more for security purposes and for safety purposes, I think it’s very beneficial. In cybersecurity, one of the big things we are studying is using different technologies to either promote awareness or to strengthen security within organizations, and drones are a huge part of that.”


Written by Ed Welch