When local police recently deployed a drone to the fifth-floor hotel room where a man was allegedly threatening to detonate a grenade, Embry-Riddle faculty member Anthony Galante was working on the scene as the aircraft’s designated visual observer.
Galante, an assistant professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle, also works part-time with the Daytona Beach Police Department (DBPD) as an aviation safety officer. At about 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 21, he received a call from drone pilot and DBPD Sergeant Tim Ehrenkaufer, requesting assistance because of potentially high winds in the area.
“My function was to keep that aircraft in my line of sight,” Galante explained. “I was communicating and coordinating all information transfer from the drone to essential personnel on scene, including the SWAT commander, the hostage negotiator and the bomb squad.”
The frightening six-hour crisis caused an entire hotel to be evacuated and shut down part of South Atlantic Avenue because the suspect was reportedly threatening to commit suicide by grenade. As Fox 35 TV reported, however, when the DJI Matrice 210 drone flew close to the suspect’s balcony window, images captured by the aircraft’s Zenmeus Z30 camera revealed the grenade to be a fake.
Sergeant Ehrenkaufer told Fox 35 that zooming in on the device in the suspect’s hand allowed him to see that the bottom of it was hollowed out, suggesting it might be a toy. Police swiftly shared the drone imagery with local gun shops and learned that, in fact, the suspect had purchased a fake grenade a day earlier. The suspect, a 45-year-old man named David Allen of Atlantic City, N.J., was tased and arrested.
“The drone imagery basically saved a life,” Galante said. “When the sniper team leader received the information that the grenade was inert and it wasn’t that high level of a threat, they de-escalated. They had been considering lethal force, but wound up tasing the suspect instead of shooting him.”
Galante, along with Embry-Riddle Worldwide faculty member Joe Cerreta, helped the DBPD stand up its drone program, after Worldwide Campus Flight Department Chair David Thirtyacre contacted Police Chief Craig Capri to discuss the collaboration. As part of the program, announced at an Aug. 10, 2017 press conference, five aviation program officers, including Sergeant Ehrenkaufer went through training with Embry-Riddle to become certified by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly drones.
Today, the department maintains a fleet of five drones, ranging in size from 1.5 to 15 pounds. Equipped with cameras for use by day or night, the drones can help police assess crime scenes and hurricane damage, or find elderly nursing-home patients who have gone missing.
Embry-Riddle’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems in Public Safety minor allows students to prepare for roles in law enforcement, emergency response and military intelligence. The minor is offered through the University’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Science degree program.
“The really cool part about this,” Galante said, “is that we are able to take lessons learned from real-world applications such as the recent hotel standoff and move that knowledge into the classroom so our students can learn from them.”