KILGORE — Even jetliner pilots have to start small.
A group of area first responders took the controls of drones this week through a training program hosted by Kilgore Police Department and spearheaded by Joshua Fire Chief Wayne Baker of 460 OPS.
On Thursday, a high-pitched buzzing filled the Texan Theater as small, store-bought gadgets whirred around an improvised obstacle course in the enclosed space downtown. For the most part, they stayed airborne, but the occasional collisions with rafters, walls and pylons didn’t do too much lasting damage.
“We let them get their crashes out on the $100 drones so they’re not getting them out on the $10,000 ones,” Baker said Thursday.
Coaching participants from Kilgore, Henderson, Mount Pleasant, Wood County and other surrounding agencies, Baker gave them a series of tasks — take off, land, pitch, yaw, rotate, reorient, move in reverse, make a figure 8. He was getting the trainees steadily accustomed to unfamiliar controls and disorienting displays.
By Friday morning, the police officers and firefighters were ready for larger flyers, sending them soaring above Kilgore High School and downtown Kilgore.
For the most part, it was all new for Kilgore Police Department’s Jason Romine, but he adjusted quickly.
“I had radio-controlled cars when I was growing up,” he said, “but never anything that flew.
“The hard part is realizing which way you’re pointing because everything keeps spinning. Your left and right get crossed as it turns. It’s really easy to lose your orientation.”
Romine set himself to the task, running a dinner plate-sized drone through its paces, monitoring progress with a display on a smartphone.
“There’s a learning curve,” Detective Tim Dukes agreed, and the technology is ever-changing. “There’s so much it can do. In the future, it’s going to be fantastic.”
Initial plans at the Kilgore Police Department call for trained officers to use drones to document crash and crimes scenes and pairing with Kilgore Fire Department personnel on search-and-rescue missions.
Looking ahead, 3D mapping with drones will be valuable, too, Dukes said, in the right situation.
“There’s a myriad of things that it can be used for. You’re going to see more and more use of them,” he said.
Dukes said no taxpayer dollars were invested in the high-priced hardware.
“We’ve got the cream of the crop, all bought by drug seizure funds,” he said.
The emergency responders will spend next week honing their skills before returning for a “final exam” on the tiny craft.
“We’re going over proficiency on basic flight skills,” Baker said. “Can they maneuver and control the aircraft? There’s a series of maneuvers we check them off on.”
The students will be awarded a certificate at the end of the program, to affirm their ground-level training.
“The technology is so new, a lot of that is still getting developed. They’re just now coming out with some new national standards we’re starting to integrate,” Baker said.
Assistant Chief Roman Roberson said Kilgore Police Department’s drone operators have different skills levels, which is why standardized training was needed before sending the devices out in the field.
“This gives them the opportunity to start with the basics,” Roberson said.