Lewis County to Purchase Heat-Sensing Drone, 3D Laser Mapping Equipment for Nearly $80,000


The Lewis County Sheriff’s Office will soon benefit from a heat-sensing drone and a 3D laser scanning system to map “major outdoor crime scenes,” according to chief deputy prosecutor Eric Eisenberg. The prosecutor’s office will pay for most of the $78,564 Trimble X7 as well as the drone, which will run more than $30,000.

“So this (drone) would allow victims or lost hikers, or in some instances suspects, to be located by a heat signature,” Prosecuting Attorney Jonathan Meyer told county commissioners this week. “It always seems like we have a lost hiker or lost mushroom picker, lost skier … so I think this would be a very useful tool.”

The drone will replace one that the sheriff’s office already has on hand, which, according to Meyer, “hasn’t been utilized all that much.” He said that’s largely because the sheriff’s office had to create thorough guidelines and policies around its use, during which time the prosecutor’s office held onto the device. At the same time, the Federal Aviation Administration established stricter regulations around drones, requiring users to get certified. Plus, Meyer said, the old drone can only be used in the daytime. 

Although the prosecutor’s office won’t use the drone, Meyer said it would help the sheriff’s office “deliver a better product” in the form of evidence to the prosecutor. He also cited one instance where the drone would’ve made a difference: a local case where a vehicle overturned into a creek, leaving law enforcement scrambling to find a young child lost in the water. 

“Law enforcement at that time had to wait for state patrol to travel to the airport, to launch a plane to travel to Lewis County, to use their heat detecting equipment in order to find, unfortunately, what turned out to be a body,” he said. “Certainly having that ability much closer at hand would be more beneficial for Lewis County as well as its residents.”

County Commissioner Gary Stamper suggested that the prosecuting attorney’s office develop a plan to “get our money’s worth,” perhaps training emergency management staffers on how to use the drone as well, “rather than spend $32,000 and you only use it four to five times a year.”

Meyer agreed that the drone should be utilized as much as possible. 

“Once we figure out a training schedule, my goal is to invite people from Public Works to be a part of that,” he said. “I don’t see why this can’t be utilized by other groups in the county. The only caveat is that you would have to have someone that’s licensed to fly it, and that requires a class and testing.”

The more expensive equipment on its way to the county — the Trimble X7 — will replace a piece of equipment “at the end of its useful life,” according to the county’s resolution approving the purchase. The device uses lasers to recreate 3D spaces, and is often used for construction. The plan is to make the equipment available to multiple county agencies. Training alone for the piece of equipment will cost the county more than $10,000 next year.

“I know it must be a complicated piece of equipment, but $10,000, that’s a lot of money,” Stamper said.