Law enforcement technologyParaglider unit gives police an eye in the sky

Published 28 December 2010

Palm Bay, Florida police has a 4-man paraglider unit which has been operating for a year and a half, taking to the air to provide a bird’s-eye view of crime scenes while aiding in the search for everything from marijuana fields to possible arsonists

Lt. Joe Eakins knelt on a patch of grass, tugging and pulling at the 70 pounds of equipment that would lift him into the blue skies over Palm Bay, Florida. “Once you’re in the air, it’s like sitting in a lounge chair,” the Palm Bay veteran officer said moments before attaching an elliptical parachute, then rising into the air.

Today’s mission for the Palm Bay Police Search Operations Aerial Response team: locate from above any homeless camps hidden by brush near where a string of burglaries were recently reported.

The 4-man paraglider unit has been operating for a year and a half, taking to the air to provide a bird’s-eye view of crime scenes while aiding in the search for everything from marijuana fields to possible arsonists.

Florida Today reports that now the program — the only one of its kind in Florida, according to Eakins — is poised to expand with up to two new members to patrol the skies over the 100-square-mile city’s winding suburban streets and thick brush.

It’s an innovative tool, and it does some things that we aren’t able to do with a patrol car. Now we want to get more officers involved with the program,” Palm Bay Deputy Police Chief Doug Muldoon said.

Each pilot has a FAA sports pilot license and has put in at least 40 hours of flight time.

The paragliders have been used in at least forty missions, said Eakins, who also is hoping to integrate the aerial patrol with the department’s dive team to form a land, aerial and water division. The initial idea for the aerial search program came about after a group of Palm Bay officers who fly similar paragliders recreationally were asked by Palm Bay Police Chief William Berger to organize a special team.

Two weeks ago, the aerial patrol guided ground officers to an all-terrain vehicle speeding through the compound area following a suspicious brush fire. The driver was questioned but not linked to the blaze, one of several to plague the city in recent months, officials said.

The team utilizes two backpack paragliders with 85-square-foot chutes, which can be stored in the trunk of a patrol car. Those cost about $500 a year to operate. A larger, two-seater with a 500-square foot canopy, has about a $4,500 annual maintenance cost, Eakins said.

The two backpack kits — which are valued at $10,000 to $12,000 apiece — were donated to the agency while the $20,000, two-seat powered paraglider was provided by the National Institute of Justice as part of an effort to assess the functionality of the equipment for police departments.

Similar NIJ-sponsored equipment is used by law enforcement agencies in Escandia County, Alabama and Ripon County, California.

Helicopters are becoming too expensive to fly. It’s $500 an hour to fly a helicopter, but these can be in the air for about $15 to $20,” said Capt. Mark Renkens, one of the program’s pilots.

Other law enforcement authorities have expressed intrigue at the program.

Anytime that law enforcement can apply new technology or innovation in pursuit of public safety, it is a positive for the community,” said Wayne Ivey, Resident Agent in Charge of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for Brevard County.

This type of program has many applications that can assist law enforcement to include searching for missing children, perpetrators of crimes, and even the recovery of stolen property.”

Still, the team wants to prove its mettle in other ways.

The aerial patrol, hoping to get a break on a series of burglaries, searched Tuesday for a possible homeless camp near Norman Street in the northeast section of the city. Only remnants of an old campsite were spotted from above.

In a separate mission, another pilot was able to locate three abandoned jet skis and a derelict boat left behind in a small lake hidden by thick brush near Brevard Community College’s Palm Bay campus. It was not much, but Eakins believes the effort put into building the team will one day lead to something bigger.

We’re still waiting for that big moment,” Eakins said. “It’ll happen.”