The Big Picture

Two officers standing next to a van piloting a drone in the foreground.
Officer Steve Shipe flies a drone, while Lt. Rick Patrus looks on. Mt. Lebanon police have two drones that they use for a variety of scenarios.

n elderly man became confused and wandered away from his home near Connor Road on a cold December afternoon in 2021. He likely suffered from dementia and couldn’t find his way back. After knocking on a neighbor’s door, he ventured into the nearby woods.

Members of the Mt. Lebanon Police Department arrived and searched the area on foot. The man was nowhere to be found. It was winter and time was of the essence.

An officer on the police department’s drone team was working that day and brought out the device. Within 10 minutes, the drone located the man who had become stuck behind a pile of brush.

“For a missing person, it’s all about time,” said Cpl. Ben Himan. “If we can find them faster, that’s the key.”

A growing number of police departments nationwide are utilizing unmanned aircraft systems, also known as drones, to solve a wide array of cases. In 2018, an estimated 910 public safety agencies in the US owned a drone, according to a Bard College report. That number increased to 1,578 in 2020, based on the latest statistics available.

Locally, the use of drones by law enforcement has continued to skyrocket in the last few years, officers say.

Mt. Lebanon was at the forefront locally when it joined those ranks nearly three years ago with the formation of its drone team.

Himan knew drones would be a great tool for Mt. Lebanon police. But, based on his research, a drawback for law enforcement was the time and effort it takes to get officers certified and the program up and running.

So, on his own time, Himan learned to fly a drone and received his Part 107, essentially the Federal Aviation Administration’s license to fly a small, unmanned device. Instead of telling police administrators about the idea, Himan showed them what can be done.

“It’s not easy, but it’s doable for our officers,” he said.

Today, five officers in the department have or are in the process of acquiring a Part 107 certification, which is required for members of a government agency to operate a drone: Himan and officers Steve Shipe, Ryan Miller and Justin Lataille. Cpl. Jeff Heidenreich is going through training. Lt. Rick Patrus serves as team administrator.

The Mt. Lebanon Police Department now has two drones, one outdoor and one indoor, the latter of which was purchased earlier this year.

Over the last several months, the drone program has expanded, now including members of the Mt. Lebanon Fire Department and new K-9 Officer Bear, a scent discriminate bloodhound. With ever-changing technology, Mt. Lebanon is looking to upgrade its outdoor drone to include infrared capabilities.

In the last year, officers have sent up drones on roughly 25 calls. Mirroring national statistics, Mt. Lebanon uses its drones most frequently for missing persons.

“This is the perfect example of why we implemented the drone program in our police department,” Patrus said of the December 2021 missing person case.

“Had we not had the drone for this incident, we may not have had the positive outcome that we had.”  

Flying at roughly 10 miles per hour, 150 feet in the air, a drone can quickly cover large areas. With thermal technology and a high-grade camera, it picks up details like where a person is located, what color they’re wearing and even the outline of their pockets to alert police if they’re carrying a weapon.

“If you can see what’s going on, you can deploy assets at a faster rate,” said Himan, who first recognized the important role drones play in police work several years ago.

A drone, and controller sitting on the ground in front of a police vehicle.
Drones provide an extra set of eyes, based in the sky.

A police asset

Himan, who at the time served as Mt. Lebanon’s K-9 handler for Officer Snieper, often attended seminars where they discussed one of the biggest threats for K-9 officers: the unknown.

Drones provide an overview of the area and give officers a sense of what is ahead.

“Situational awareness is the most important thing that I was looking at,” Himan said. “I saw the value of drones. They’re a force multiplier.”

Air support has always been a great resource for public safety personnel, Himan said. But it comes with a big price tag. Drones are a much cheaper, more efficient way to get an observation from above.

Former Mt. Lebanon Police Chief Aaron Lauth was on board. Police Chief Jason Haberman, who took over the reins in January, continues to embrace technology and sees the value in the program.

“This technology really speaks to our mission statement about using all resources to help in any way we can,” Haberman said. “It’s improving our mission and being able to deliver services and technology in any way that we can … This is really a grassroots effort. It was started with the interest of our officers. They drove this project.”

A man wearing goggles piloting a drone.
Cpl. Ben Himan wears first-person view goggles to fly a drone. Officers typically use their phones to get a view from the drone, in place of the goggles.

A set of eyes in the sky

The police can also use drones to help locate a fleeing suspect, assist with the reconstruction of a crash scene and enter dangerous situations ahead of officers.

“We’ve started doing 3D maps of buildings,” Himan said. “You can take a video with the drone and put it into a program and get a 3D model. Then the officers are able to see where they have to go.”

For large-scale events, the drones provide officers with a view of the crowd and the space and give them a live visual of the area they need to respond to if a situation occurs.

The live aerial footage can be broadcast to large screens located in the back of the on-scene police command vehicle. One screen often contains the drone footage, while the other contains a map of the area, allowing officers to do a systematic search.

The drones can stream live footage to officers’ cell phones, so they have an idea of where they’re headed.

“If the commanders, who are the experts at this, can actually see a real, live view of what’s going on, they can deploy assets faster and more efficiently,” Himan said. “It’s a bad feeling when you’re walking somewhere, and you have no idea what’s in front of you. That drone in front can clear the area so we can say, ‘Hey, there’s no one on the roof over there,’ or ‘This alley is clear of any thermal signature.’”

The drones can be deployed for everything from a crash scene to a hazardous exposure, or even an active shooter, providing real-time eyes from the sky to help police better do their job. It’s up to the watch commander to decide if a drone is needed.

Fire departments nationally are now using drones to locate the hotspots in buildings and find people trapped inside.

“When the (Panther Hollow) bridge fell down in Pittsburgh, (first responders) were able to clear it out in no time, using a drone,” Himan said. “In Florida, there was a building that fell down. They were able to do a 3D model and check the entire area in seven minutes. Obviously, you can’t send people in if it’s a dangerous situation, but the drone was able to go in.”

Shipe is also a member of South Hills Area Council of Governments’ Critical Incident Response Team, which uses drones frequently when responding to high level calls. He carries a drone in his bag on every call.

“It’s been very well received,” he said.

Shipe recalls one incident where officers sent a drone into a home ahead of them. They cleared the basement and first floor. No one was there.

The drone made its way to the second floor where the suspect was, lying in bed with an assault rifle and a pistol next to him.

Had it not been for the drone, officers would have gone in themselves and would have been forced to make a split-second decision on how to respond.

“We were able to slow things down a lot. We were able to get his attention, talk to him, de-escalate, call him out of the room and watch him the entire time,” Shipe said.

“It’s a huge assistance for avoiding that use of force.”

A police officer piloting a drone looking down at a controller.
Officer Steve Shipe controls a drone. Shipe is one of five officers who have, or are in the process of obtaining licenses to operate drones. Last year, the department used drones on 25 calls.

A right to privacy

Nationally, drones have drawn skepticism over privacy concerns. In Pennsylvania, Title 18 provides regulations that oversee drone use. However, law enforcement officers are exempt if they are “engaged in the performance of their official law enforcement duties.”

Mt. Lebanon police said they strive to be transparent.

“People still have a reasonable expectation of privacy,” Patrus said.

If police enter a house with a drone, they must have the homeowner’s permission or a search warrant, or there must be exigent circumstances that police believe to be a threat.

“We’re not using this for speed,” Himan said. “We’re not writing citations with this. This is all for good … If my mother or someone I love went missing and I wanted them to be found the fastest, I would want a drone being put up. That’s the fastest way you’re going to find someone.”

Mt. Lebanon police bring their drones to events like the Rock the Block with Public Safety street festivals, so the public can see for themselves what the officers are using.

“It’s not being used for some covert actions,” Himan said. “If it’s going up, there’s a good reason why it’s going up.”

“we need to do this right”

Law enforcement personnel are required to follow Federal Aviation Administration rules when flying a drone. The drone must stay below 400 feet and be within sight. They also cannot fly in restricted air spaces.

In order to receive a Part 107 small, unmanned aircraft systems certification, pilots are required to learn a lot about air space.

“You have to learn where you can fly, when it’s safe to fly and what hazards to look out for,” Himan said.

Mt. Lebanon police took it a step further and brought in an instructor to teach officers how to fly in a variety of conditions.

Officers train together every other month. On the off months, they fly on their own for a minimum of four hours each.

“We need to do this right,” Himan said. “We want to have the best drone unit in the nation.”

Watch drone footage as it flies over the Classic Car Show in 2022.
Photos by Ken Lager