New Sheriff's Tech Takes Flight to Catch Marijuana Growers and Lost Hikers


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Jun 21, 2007
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Mike Shetler’s setup is one of a kind, and he’s letting Sheriff Tom Carter have open access.

As law enforcement agencies across the country think of new tools to aid in the fight against crime, Twin Falls County’s sheriff is looking toward the sky. With Shetler’s help, the county will soon be able to fly a radio-controlled helicopter with a mounted camera, giving deputies a bird’s-eye view. Carter hopes to use the technology to spot marijuana grows concealed in corn crops, or locate stranded hikers or the like in search-and-rescue missions.

For years, police have used real helicopters for these missions, relying on grant money or other aid from the federal government to offset the high expense. Currently, agencies can set aside flight time with an Idaho Army National Guard helicopter, but resources are limited. Last summer, with the aid of aerial spotters, deputies in Jerome and Gooding counties found nearly 10,000 plants among multiple corn fields.

The way Carter sees it, why wait for an appointment?

“Every year we find marijuana in the fields,” Carter said. “This costs a fraction (of using a full-size helicopter), and the technology is unbelievable.”

His idea was to tap Shetler, an area developer with a passion for flying, to help. Shetler and his family have known the sheriff for years, and as a native of southern Idaho, this is Shetler’s way of giving back to his community.

“I knew he was into (flying), and he’s volunteered to help out when needed” with his full-size helicopter, Carter said.

What Shetler brings in terms of technology is not a $100 radio flyer bought in a hobby shop. It’s more like a $30,000 setup.

His newest helicopter is battery-powered with an onboard computer and a custom-built aluminum and carbon-fiber mount for the digital camera. The helicopter kit comes from Germany, and Shetler and a few flying-enthusiast friends can build one in less than a day. It weighs about 7 pounds, can reach speeds of 130 mph and has a range of more than a mile.

Shetler bought the camera mount about 6 years ago because he initially wanted to take aerial shots of his properties. The camera can stream a live picture wirelessly to a modified set of glasses or a small LCD screen, so he and deputies can see what the helicopter sees in real time. The software and setup is all custom-made as well.

While demonstrating the helicopter at his home southeast of Twin Falls, a possible electrical glitch rendered the controls unresponsive, and the helicopter crashed into a nearby field. He pointed out the crash itself shows another benefit of using radio-controlled helicopters: the damage was minimal.

“Had that been a full-scale (helicopter), you’re dead, the pilot’s dead,” he said. “It could have killed people.”

As for the smashed helicopter, Shetler has plenty of spare parts and said he’d have it rebuilt before the end of the day. It’s one of three, anyway, and he and Carter can’t wait to get them into the sky and put them to use.


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