PALM BAY, Fla., May 9, 2009 -- In one Florida community, cops are not just walking the beat, they are soaring high above it.
The Palm Bay Police Department in Florida has become the first in the nation to put its officers in powered paragliders, the ultra-light flying machines usually associated with adventure sports, not police work.
Police Chief Bill Berger says they are a way for the department to have a bird's eye view of the semi-rural city at minimal cost.
"Because we don't have a lot of roadway here, this gives us the ability to basically take short cuts," said Berger.
Four officers are training to fly the powered paragliders, including Lt. Mark Renkins, who has flown recreationally for several years.
"It doesn't replace a helicopter or a fixed-wing [airplane]," said Renkins. "But it gives the department some aerial capability, when it had none at all."
It costs about $10,000 to purchase the paragliding equipment and pay for training, which makes it a more affordable option for the 150-officer Palm Bay Police Department.
The gliders consist of little more than a seat tethered to a parachute and powered, essentially, by an oversized lawn-mower engine. The paraglider uses about a gallon of gas per hour.
The gliders have the ability to fly at low altitudes and controlled, low speeds, which may be useful in search-and-rescue operations and some types of surveillance.
Palm Bay, Fla., is a sprawling community spanning more than 100 square miles with a substantial retirement community. Chief Berger sees the gliders as an ideal tool for searching for missing elderly people who have wandered away.
"The problem with helicopters is you can't go below 1,000 feet," said Berger. "The canopy of trees in our community prevented the helicopter from seeing a woman who had [died] close to her car. The paragliders would have been able to get much lower."
Weather Limits Paraglider Use
But there are limitations to the paragliders, weather being the biggest. Paragliders are at the mercy of winds, and when the Florida sun heats the ground quickly, wind turbulence can ground the gliders from mid-morning to late afternoon.
However, "even if the window is short, they can get a lot done in the small amount of time that they have got," said Phil Russman, a paragliding instructor who has been training the Palm Bay police officers.
Another limitation is that the paraglider must always have a spot to land. Because Palm Bay is surrounded by spacious rural areas, this is less of a problem. But the paragliders might be far less practical in more urban environments.
"The more congested the area ... the less options you have for landing safely," said Renkins.
Still, he added, "It's better to have in our opinion some capability of seeing from the air than having none at all."
The pilot program has the blessing of the U.S. Justice Department, which encourages police departments in small and rural towns to experiment with low-cost ways to get in the air. According to the department, out of almost 19,000 law enforcement agencies in the nation, only about 300 of them have aviation assets.
In an e-mail, Michael O'Shea, a law enforcement program manager, wrote, "We [are] looking for safe and low-cost aviation technologies that would allow an agency to have that "eye-in-the-sky" to look for marijuana grows and meth labs; to take pictures of critical infrastructure like schools and public buildings; to search for lost children, hikers, boaters; and to assess the damage from natural and man-made disasters."
The DOJ's Aviation Technology Program is also exploring unmanned aircraft and light-sport, fixed-wing aircraft.
There has been some initial success with powered parachutes, which are similar to paragliders, but larger and more unwieldy. O'Shea said a police department in Sells, Ariz., recently used a powered parachute to recover two bodies that had been washed out of a car in rising water.
"The ability to give closure to the families quickly was the best result of this flight mission," wrote O'Shea.
The Palm Bay program is supported by paraglider manufacturer Dudek. The company has loaned the police department two gas-powered paragliders. After six months, the department will assess whether the gliders are effective and decide whether to purchase them for about $25,000.
Palm Bay's high-flying officers certainly are sold on them.
"It's a lot more fun to patrol in that than in a patrol car," said Renkens. "Absolutely."