All eyes were on the sky as members of the Billings police and fire departments trained on the Matrice 300, a state-of-the-art drone designed with public safety in mind.
“It’s a force multiplier for us. We are sometimes resource-limited at big incidents. By using one of these drones, we’re able to get a better size-up of what’s going on. We can keep track of our people; we can identify needs and respond to them,” said Billings Fire Department Engineer Mark Solberg.
The drone is one of six that arrived in Montana, thanks to a $300,000 State Homeland Security grant.
“This project has been about four years in the making. We were able to get these drones to fire departments with HAZMAT teams throughout the state,” Solberg explained.
While drones are a tool that already exists for the Billings police and fire departments, this specific model has attachments and capabilities their other drones don’t offer.
“It can carry things like life jackets to people who are stuck in the water. It can carry food and water to people who are stuck somewhere before rescuers arrive. It can carry tools into HAZMAT incidents,” Solberg said.
Besides the ability to carry up to 12 pounds, the Matrice 300 has a laser rangefinder, a thermal camera, an optical camera with 200x zoom, batteries that last up to an hour, all weather flying capabilities between -4 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and 4K resolution.
In the world of police and fire, the possibilities are endless.
“We’re able to use it for search and rescue. If somebody goes off the rims or gets stuck in the river, we can use the camera to help find them. The thermal features allow us to see hot spots in fires. We can check the stability of roofs on buildings without having to send people into them. It’ll help us size-up HAZMAT incidents where we want to keep our people out of harm’s way. We can look and see what’s going on there and send the right tools in without having to endanger lives,” explained Solberg.
With so many features, the drone can be manned by one person or two. One would control the drone while the other controls the camera.
If the cameras haven’t impressed you yet, the drone can lock onto an object for tracking and travel more than nine miles away.
Altogether, the price of the drone and its equipment totals roughly $32,000.
With each of the state’s six HAZMAT teams receiving $50,000 from the State Homeland Security grant, expenses for time and training were also covered, leaving no cost to the City of Billings.
Solberg knew the Matrice 300 drone would be invaluable to the department’s HAZMAT team. He also knew Homeland Security is more likely to support high-impact projects, which is why he worked with the Bozeman, Kalispell, Great Falls, Helena, and Missoula fire departments and got them on board.
Each of the departments are going through training lead by instructors from Steel City Drones out of Pittsburgh, PA.
For Billings police and fire, their turn came the first full week of June.
Five members of the Billings Fire Department and seven members of the Billings Police Department have their Remote Pilot Certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration.
They can launch the drone when a public safety situation arises; a vision Solberg had since 2018 when he started working on the idea.
“It’s been a really long road and I’m really happy to have this up in the air,” he said.