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Can drone patrols stop youth from dying in Thunder Bay's rivers?

That's what city officials in the troubled city are being asked to consider
File photo. Leith Dunick/

THUNDER BAY — A former Canadian Armed Forces pilot is urging city officials to explore using drone technology to help improve waterway safety.

Local resident Tim Ormston made a presentation to Thunder Bay city council at Monday evening’s meeting, advocating for including commercial flight system drones and a radio controlled water rescue buoy to patrol the watercourses.

Ormston pitched a conceptual initiative he called Operation Guardian Star, which would include two drone operators and two observers.

“They do a spot check on the McIntyre River and they see something in the water and can’t readily identify it because it’s dark. Is it a log or is it a person in distress? With the drone, you can turn on the thermal imaging and forward looking infrared and you can tell if it’s a log or if it’s a person,” Ormston said.

“The person is in distress. The drone operator lands the drone and the observer grabs the U-Safe flotation device, which is radio controlled, and deploys it into the river and drives it up to the person, next to them or close to them so if they want the help they can reach out and grab it. Then it can actually propel them to shore. All the while, the drone operator that landed the drone has already called 911 to have police, fire and EMS on scene. So there’s an initial water rescue underway while you’re waiting for fire services to arrive, which could be four to six minutes or longer or shorter.”

Since 2000, seven youth have been found dead in Thunder Bay waterways including 17-year-old Tammy Keeash and 14-year-old Josiah Begg, who both died earlier this year.

Ormston said Operation Guardian Star would not have drones operated continuously, instead they would be randomized spot checks in different locations.

“Guardian Star would be viewed as an enhancement of frontline services to working in a collaborative effort to reduce the number of waterway incidents, which we know is previously documented at 366 incidents in a year,” said Ormston, who added he has met with city police leadership to discuss the technology.

“Guardian Star would not aim to replace the services of police, fire and EMS but rather enhance them at the response time and provide a critical stopgap coverage.”

Thunder Bay Police Service acting chief Sylvie Hauth said police have drone technology included in next year’s capital budget request, but did not specify its intended usage.

“This is definitely something we’ve been looking at for some time,” Hauth said. “In 2016 and into 2017 we made applications through grants and the government no longer funds drone applications, thus why it’s becoming a capital request.”



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About the Author: Matt Vis

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