Lost and Found

By Susan Robertson

Photo by Stephanie Wilson

Derrick Woods

On a 32-degree night in mid-December, County Technical Assistance Service (CTAS) Criminal Justice Consultant Derrick Woods answered the call from the Newport Rescue Squad to help locate a special-needs 17-year-old boy.

Around midnight, parents of the boy reported that their son had left the house earlier and failed to return. Realizing they needed more than ground assistance to locate the teenager, the rescue squad and Cocke County Sheriff’s Office reached out to Woods, who is an experienced drone pilot, to assist in the search. Woods pilots a heat-sensing drone that allows him to identify people and animals after dark.

“I also have a 32-inch TV screen that I brought out with me so that others could monitor it to see if they spotted anything,” Woods says. “We did identify one person in a field, and it turns out that person had begun to search on his own for the missing teen.”

After three hours of flying, Woods noticed the battery was running low. He continued flying the drone as he walked back to the residence.

“I noticed someone in the woods about three quarters of a mile or half a mile from the house,” Woods says. Coming out of the wooded area, he found the teenager, who said he’d been trying to return to his house.

Woods has had his drone pilot license since 2018 and re-tests every two years to maintain that license.

“I began flying drones as a hobby and quickly realized what an advanced tool this can be for law enforcement. I started the drone program at the Cocke County Sheriff’s Office when I was there,” he says. Woods retired from the sheriff’s office in December 2020. He started work with CTAS in February 2023.

Newport Rescue Squad Captain Clifton ‘Pud’ Valentine says the department, which has a 12-man team appointed to search-and-rescue efforts due to its proximity to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the county’s mountainous terrain, has been called to help locate five missing people in a recent one-month period. He knows Woods from his work with the sheriff’s office and called him to bring his drone to help in the search for the missing teenager.

“We are looking into buying a drone for the rescue squad,” Valentine says.

CTAS bought two drones in 2023 for use by Woods in his role as a criminal justice consultant and for Environmental Management Consultant Kim Raia. Raia, who also is a licensed drone pilot, uses the aircraft to help counties inspect landfills, wastewater treatment plants and more.

Woods said using drones in law enforcement provides an aerial perspective that “can swiftly assess emergencies.”

“This bestows invaluable information that enables law enforcement to make well-informed decisions, safeguarding officers and the public,” he says. “An eye in the sky provides critical intelligence and guides the ground units to optimal positions. It increases efficiency, improves safety, saves cost, expands applications in various industries and includes accessibility to remote areas for multiple purposes.

“Drones are faster than conventional vehicles when used with first responders. They can reach a location within minutes after receiving an emergency request. Drones can easily cover a large area when equipped with thermal sensors. These make them effective in search-and-rescue operations. In the 21st century of law enforcement, drones are the advanced tools for public safety.”