Search and rescue on Clear Lake goes high tech

(Above) (L-R) Jim Finstad, Chief Doug Meyers and Greg Southgate watch the sonar screen tracking the movement of the department’s new underwater drone while aboard  Fire Boat Bud.-Reporter photo by Chris Barragy.

by Marianne Gasaway

It looks like they are playing some new video game, but members of the Clear Lake Volunteer Fire Department were all business last week as they trained to operate a new remotely operated vehicle which will be used for search and rescue operations.

Nine members of the Clear Lake Fire Department have been trained to operate the department’s new underwater drone. The swimming pool at the AmericInn was used early on as department members learned how to navigate the equipment with the advantage of being able to see it. Later they used the drone in Clear Lake under zero visibility conditions, maneuvering it using sonar. -Reporter photo by Marianne Gasaway.

The Video Ray brand underwater drone recently acquired by the CLFD is believed to be the first in Iowa.

CLFD Chief Doug Meyers said an anonymous donation was used to purchase the drone, which is able to be deployed in open water, as well as ice-covered bodies of water.

Friday, Saturday and Sunday nine members of the department were trained by company representatives to learn how to operate the underwater drone, with its high intensity lighting, live feed video imaging, and multi-beam high sensitivity sonar imaging capabilities.  The device has the ability to deliver marking devices and retrieval tools to locate targets.

Dave Phillips, a private consultant for Video Ray who conducts trainings around the globe, said now is a good time for departments to be utilizing the underwater drone technology.

“The company has been around for 15 years and this model about five years.  It has been very reliable and trouble-free, as well as easy to use.  It’s a great tool for public safety,” said Phillips.  The technology has continued to evolve and the military has made more and more sonar advances available in recent years.  In fact, the high-tech sonar utilized by the device accounts for about one-half of the unit’s cost.  It’s high definition camera is also an important feature.

“Right now, this is the best there is,” added Phillips.

After some classroom time familiarizing themselves with the equipment, CLFD members worked on their fine motor skills maneuvering the drone in the swimming pool at the local AmericInn.  The pool’s clear water made it easy to see how the drone moved and firefighter’s took turns trying to drop a golf ball the drone had in its grasp into a tube placed underwater.

“They have to learn to use a two-dimensional screen in a three-dimensional world,” said Phillips, watching as his students took turns with the joystick controlling the drone.

Saturday, it was time to work aboard the department’s fire boat, “Bud,” and operate the drone using only its sonar.   Members learned about the  multi-beam scan sonar feature which allows the drone operator to see underwater in zero visibility.  They trained using two milk crates tied together in the water.  Using the underwater drone, they were able to see the crates at almost 80-feet away in 10-feet of water with zero visibility and navigate the drone to them.  Then, when within six-inches, the equipment could be switched to use a video camera and view the crates while using the mechanical arm to clamp onto them and pull them from the water.

The relatively small drone has the ability to travel 4.3 knots and has a surprising amount of power.  The equipment has no trouble pulling anything from a battery, to a body, to the surface.

Chief Meyers said dive teams continue to be an important asset to local departments, however the availability of divers is sometimes not immediate.

“We may wait one to three hours for divers to be on the scene.  It depends on their availability,” said Meyers, adding that the CLFD does not have underwater rescue personnel.  The ability to be able to deploy an underwater drone minutes after the report of a boat accident, or in the case of a vehicle going through the ice, is critical, he added.

Meyers said he is willing to make the equipment available to other Iowa communities requesting mutual aide,  depending on the availability of trained CLFD members to travel and operate the drone.

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