Law enforcement agencies began using drones for surveillance and various operational purposes in the early 2000s. Initially, drones were primarily used for military applications, but their adoption by law enforcement expanded as technology advanced and became more accessible.

In 2023, 61 percent of the police departments in South Carolina used drones, with 93 percent of those departments expecting their programs to grow. 

In the ever-evolving landscape of law enforcement, the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department has taken a bold step into the future with its innovative Drone Unit. At the forefront of this groundbreaking initiative is Investigator Bryan Senn, a Certified Part 107 Operator and a key member of the LCSD Drone Unit. 

To dive deeper into the role of drones in law enforcement and their impact on the Lexington County community, we asked Inv. Senn a bit more about being a core member of the Drone Unit.

What is a Certified Part 107 Operator?

A Certified Part 107 Operator is more than just a drone enthusiast; it’s a professional designation granted by the Federal Aviation Administration. Senn, having successfully navigated the challenging certification process, stands as a testament to the dedication and expertise required for this role. 

To obtain this certification, aspiring operators undergo a rigorous testing process that dives deep into aircraft knowledge, terminology and safety procedures. Senn describes the exam as one of the most demanding he’s faced, requiring a deep understanding of runway directions, weather codes and aviation language. 

As a small unmanned aircraft systems, often referred to by the acronym SUAS, operator, Senn emphasizes the importance of this knowledge in ensuring the safety of both drone operators and traditional pilots. The FAA recognizes drones as aircrafts, highlighting the pivotal role SUAS operators play in the world of aviation.

Why did Senn choose this career path?

Senn’s love for technology and a keen interest in the evolving field of law enforcement inspired him to become a drone operator.
Bryan states joining this unit at LCSD “was a way to contribute and be on the cutting edge of technology and law enforcement” and would allow him to be part of “the next wave of the future” since there are many benefits to drone operations. 

Being a drone operator offers a multi-faceted opportunity to enhance law enforcement efforts. 

Senn says he “tells people all the time [that they] aren’t replacing boots on the ground, [rather they are] helping them do their jobs better”. 

With this said, Senn stresses the role is complementary, not a replacement for traditional law enforcement methods. Drone operators act as an extra set of eyes in the sky, providing valuable assistance in various scenarios, from searching for missing persons to supporting the K-9 unit in high-risk situations. 

How has the Drone Unit at Lexington County Sheriff’s Department evolved?

The Lexington County Sheriff’s Department Drone Unit officially took flight in late 2021, with roots in the SWAT Unit’s use of smaller drones. Senn explains their journey began with four certified pilots and has since expanded to eight collateral positions, showcasing the unit’s growth and adaptability.

Senn shares “flying an SUAS or SUAV is a perishable skill. If you set down the controller for long enough, it’s like trying to learn it all over again”.

Continuous learning is a cornerstone of the Drone Unit’s success. In-house training, collaboration with other agencies, and leveraging FAA educational resources keep the unit aware of the latest technologies and best practices. 

What technologies does the Drone Unit work with?

The LCSD Drone Unit operates a diverse fleet, from indoor drones assigned to the SWAT Unit to large search and rescue drones. Equipped with zoom lenses and thermal capabilities, these drones empower the unit to swiftly and efficiently gather crucial data. 

Live-streaming services and tracking programs further enhance the unit’s capabilities, providing real-time insights during operations. The integration of technology allows for precise geographic location pinpointing, saving valuable time and energy. 

What does success look like as a Certified Part 107 Operator?

Reflecting on the successes of the Drone Unit, Senn highlights his role in assisting the K-9 Unit during tracks, specifically the use of thermal cameras and how they offer unique perspectives, ultimately contributing to successful mission outcomes. 

“There’s been a lot of success as a Certified Part 107 Operator,” says Senn. “My role is more of an assisting collateral duty assignment, so a lot of it has been helping overwatch K-9 on tracks. A lot of the time, we are using thermal cameras, so we see a heat source and give the K-9 Unit a heads up”. 

As the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department Drone Unit continues to evolve and demonstrate its capabilities, Senn is excited about the untapped potential within the career and community as a whole. The implementation of drone technology continues to grow and redefine what’s possible in law enforcement to ensure a safer community for all.