Sheriff’s office drone crash still under investigation



By Bryan Kirk

Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration are still trying to determine what caused a $250,000 unmanned aerial surveillance drone operated by the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office to crash in Lake Conroe.

The ShadowHawk Unmanned Aerial System, commonly referred to as a drone, was being used during a SWAT training exercise on April 25 when it malfunctioned and crashed.

“Apparently when they were conducting the exercise, they had a sudden malfunction and that is why it went down in the water. Before it went down, they didn’t have any indication that there was anything wrong with it,” said Lt.Brady Fitzgerald, spokesman for the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office.

The ShadowHawk sustained substantial damage to the structure of the aircraft. Pieces of the drone were recovered about 40 feet beneath the surface of the water by the Houston Police Department dive team on May 8.

“They (the dive team) were having problems with the rocky bottom…so they were having difficulty locating the (drone),” Fitzgerald said.

The MK-II ShadowHawk Unmanned Aerial System was obtained from Houston-based Vanguard Defense Industries in October 2011 through a $250,000 Department of Homeland Security grant.

The intended use of the drone was to assist the county in critical operations, such as emergency management, search and rescue, and SWAT operations.

The drone was equipped with a camera and an infrared scanning device when it crashed.

Fitzgerald said the drone was used sparingly. It was used just once since 2011 in actual law enforcement operations and that was to document a crime scene. The craft had accumulated about 25 hours of flight time with a a majority of that time for training purposes.

As for the replacement of the craft, Fitzgerald said the decisions lies with the Montgomery County Commissioners Court.

“If the administration or command staff made the decision to purchase something else, or repair (the drone) they’d have to go through commissioners court before they made some kind of purchase,” Fitzgerald said.

Montgomery County was one of the first law enforcement agencies in the United States to obtain and use the ShadowHawk for these types of operations, which has expanded to include dozens more agencies.

Officials with Vanguard declined to provide a list of law enforcement agencies which use the drone.

The sheriff’s office had a service agreement with Vanguard, which expired last year. Michael Buscher, CEO of Vanguard Defense Industries, said the vehicle received a 25 hour service and maintenance check in September, which did not reveal any mechanical issues that required maintenance.

“We have never had an incident with this aircraft,” Buscher said.

Vanguard is working closely with the NTSB and the FAA and Buscher says they’ve provided the federal agencies with information they hope will determine cause of the crash.

“We’ve been in regular contact with them during the investigation,” he said. “We’ve done a complete review of the telemetry and (we are) writing up a report that will go to the NTSB.”

Although Vanguard is helping with the federal investigation into the incident by providing data, they have yet to conduct their own investigation, or examine the damaged aircraft.

“We have not had a chance to put hands on the actual recovered aircraft yet, which is a little bit disappointing, so we’d like to get to that as soon as possible so we can have a real good understanding of what occurred,” he said.