Infrared drones responsible for saving over 20 lives in Sumter County

Sheriff’s office credits drones for success in recent cases

SUMTER COUNTY, Fla. – Most Central Florida law enforcement agencies have purchased drones because they’ve found they cannot do without them.

Even Sumter County, home to most of The Villages, is investing in the newest and best drones.

The Sumter County Sheriff’s Office now has 12 high-tech drones, one for every shift, flying them several times a day.

The drone operated by the SWAT team can break glass and continue flying.

Undersheriff Pat Breeden said the Sheriff’s Office helicopter still has a useful place in law enforcement, but when it comes to a nearly instantaneous response, a drone is faster.

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“It provides almost instant air support for our deputies,” Breeden said. “Time saving, officer safety, citizen safety, there was so much bonus with the drones it was a no-brainer not to get them.”

Breeden understood in 2020 what drones could do for his law enforcement agency. What he didn’t expect was just how much they would do.

“I said, ‘Wow, they can do basically what a helicopter can do and then some!’” Breeden said.

Sgt. Matthew Perry runs the drone program for the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office.

“We can get a drone in the air anywhere from two to three minutes after we get a call once we get on scene,” Perry said. “The helicopter, getting it, flight checking it and getting it running and getting it up in the air and getting to the scene, so if it’s up here in The Villages, it could be 15 minutes.”

Sumter County is one of the smallest counties in Central Florida by size, but on any given day, the population doubles because of the people traveling through the county on the Turnpike.

And while The Villages is ever-expanding, Sumter County is home to untouched rural land - thick woods - where more people are ending up lost, like a woman with her dog recently.

How many lives has Perry saved with the Sheriff’s Office’s drones?

“Honestly, I’d say upwards of 20, 20 or more,” Perry said. “These drones in a single shift can be flown anywhere from one to five times. There are busy days when we’re using the drone left and right.”

Perry had the flying eye in the air in minutes and found the missing woman using the drone’s infrared camera.

“So that’s where this image shines,” Perry said. “At night when you can’t see anything with the naked eye, the thermal imaging camera shows you a person in a field.”

Or an armed murder suspect that the sheriff’s office tracked recently who hiding in the woods.

Or a man on a hotel roof with a gun who’d just fired at police through his hotel room door.

“He come out the middle of the motel somewhere and got up to the area of the roof and was kind of hiding on the roof,” Breeden said. “And we no idea he’s up there, we knew he was in the hotel and on the move.”

Undersheriff Breeden said it was one of the first success stories - deputies got the drone over the roof before the sheriff’s office helicopter could even get in the air. They spotted the man with the gun, he surrendered, and they surrounded him.

“Well, you’ve got hundreds of people in a motel, anybody could have been taken hostage, shot, killed,” Breeden said. “That’s one of the reasons we got the drone, for rapid response, citizen safety, and it paid off in this instant.”

Each drone costs about $10,000, including extra batteries and special cameras.

But Breeden said he could spend that same amount of money in one night operating the helicopter for several hours.

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About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for WKMG-TV News 6 (CBS) in Orlando and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting. Erik joined the News 6 News Team in 2003 days after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia.