Kirkwood is on the brink of joining the growing number of municipalities that have an “eye in the sky” drone for its police and fire departments.

The city council at its Sept. 5 meeting gave preliminary approval of roughly $28,000 to purchase a drone from Fire Cam, a Belleville, Illinois, company that specializes in providing video resources to public safety departments.

The purchase was requested by the police department as a relatively low-cost means of providing aerial surveillance of crime and accident scenes, as well as an effective way to search for lost or missing persons.

“We’ve been working on this for almost three years now,” Kirkwood Police Chief Brian Murphy said, noting he wanted to make sure the department had sufficient use for a drone, as well as the full cost and licensing requirements involved. “We didn’t want to buy one and find out we didn’t have any use for it.”

The police department quickly discovered all of the possibilities.

“The uses are really endless,” said Kirkwood Police Department Detective Chris Beckman, who will be in charge of operating the drone. “It will give us eyes where we normally wouldn’t have them ... and a lot faster.”

Police will use the drone to find lost or missing children, fugitives from traffic accidents (or other legal entanglements), and suspects running through neighborhoods.

“We had one (an incident) a couple of weeks ago where a guy ran out and if we had had the drone, we could have found him a lot sooner,” Beckman said.

A flight demonstration on the parking lot of the police department showed the instrument capable of recording detail on the site of the Walmart store parking lot on the southern end of town.

The camera’s high-resolution capabilities will show detailed surveys of crime scenes, fires and traffic accidents.

The drone has four propellers and separate mounts for two cameras – one for high definition video and one for thermal imaging, according to Kyle Naliborsky, an Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) specialist for Fire Cam.

The video camera has a 30x zoom lens that can capture a license plate number from a half mile away, he added. The thermal camera can record a human figure concealed in a wooded area in low light from the same distance.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) permits drones to operate at a maximum altitude of 400 feet. The device purchased by Kirkwood has an operating radius of five miles and a flight time of 30-40 minutes on a single battery charge.

Detective Beckman already holds an FAA operator’s license and at least one other Kirkwood police officer will soon be put through the training. The drone will be made available to the Kirkwood Fire Department, city utility departments and to police departments in neighboring municipalities.

St. Louis County, Creve Coeur, Clayton, University City and Wentzville, as well as several police and fire departments in Illinois, are using or will soon be using drones, according to Murphy and Naliborsky.

“It will be a lot less expensive than a helicopter, and a lot more available,” Kirkwood Police Chief Murphy said. “In my 30 years of experience as a police officer, I have found the helicopter from the county is seldom available when we ask for it.”