By David Short, San Marcos Daily Record
— You may not hear it, may not even see it without straining your eyes but flying overhead during some emergencies in Hays County is a four-pound drone aircraft providing a birds-eye view to commanders in the field.
“Hays County was the first governmental body in the United States to get a Certificate of Authority (COA) from the FAA,” Gene Robinson, who created and builds the Spectra series in Wimberley, said.
It was during his recovery from an operation several years back that Robinson, a former computer consultant, read a 1969 NASA paper on “flying wings” and became fascinated with the concept.
“I decided to build one, and unfortunately that first one didn’t turn out so well,” Robinson said. “The FAA doesn’t allow commercial flights with the aircraft, but our focus is on first responders and thus providing a community service.”
Robinson created two companies, RP Flight Systems to build and sell the drones and RP Search Services, a non-profit that utilizes grants and donations to assist local law enforcement and fire/EMS agencies in search and recovery efforts.
“At this point, we’ve been in four countries and 21 states,” Robinson said.
The technology is still so new and many times unknown that most agencies wait too late to call for his help, he said.
“We have eight confirmed recoveries, all deceased,” he said. “Usually law enforcement waits weeks to call us in. However Hays County is an exception with leaders who recognize the value of using the drone early in the process.”
“Besides recent missing persons cases, we’ve been called several times for fires. The drone gives fire commanders a tremendous view of the situation, enabling better strategic placement of resources,” Robinson said.
With law enforcement the drone provides a quiet, unobtrusive view in criminal and hostage situations versus the traditional use of a helicopter. The drone is also more cost effective, running as little as $2 per hour compared to a helicopter and crew that can be upwards of $2,000 per hour, according to Robinson.
Although he no longer is involved with them, Robinson did at one point use his drones with federal law enforcement agencies and their counterparts along the border.
“We did a kidnap ransom case one time, with the drone sitting 400 feet above the exchange and the parties below completely unaware. Law enforcement was able to then intercept them, including Mexican police who were on the drug cartel’s payroll,” Robinson said.
Word is spreading about the capabilities the drone brings to first responders and their effectiveness in a variety of situations. Recently the Texas Rangers invited him to give an in-service presentation and the Department of the Interior has taken an interest in the design and possible applications for their agency.
Robinson’s goal is to make the technology more affordable to all first responder agencies so that one day it becomes commonplace for each to have a drone or have access o one.
“We want to mass produce these at a price point of under $10,000 each. Right now a fully equipped one can run closer to $20,000. But that’s still cheaper than our nearest competitor whose craft runs $30,000 just for the drone and then another $250,000 for a ground station,” Robinson said.
Robinson credits the late Hays Sheriff Allen Bridges for being among the first to recognize the benefits to first responders.
“Early on I was making a presentation to the Hays County Commissioners Court, just a presentation, and at the end he stands up, unsolicited, and tells the court, ‘Ya’ll should sign up for this, we could really use this in the field….’” Robinson said.
That belief continues at the sheriff’s office today where a recent missing person case off HIlliard saw the department making an early call to Robinson for assistance.
While searchers were able to locate the missing man just prior to launch of the drone, it was apparent in talking with many of the searchers gathered at the command post that afternoon that the drone had become a welcome sight in emergency situations.