Investigators last spring looking into Jerome's largest fire ever needed to go inside three two-story buildings on West Main Street. But they worried poking around the heavily damaged structures could expose them to further danger.
Instead, they called upon an unmanned drone equipped with a video camera and supplied by the Twin Falls County Sheriff's Office. The helicopter-like craft was able to fly through apartments and three businesses housed in the buildings.
"It was easier to send a drone in than to risk injury to the investigators by having them walk through the buildings," said Don Newman, chief deputy for the sheriff's office.
Investigators found that a hot glue gun left on a plastic chair was to blame for the fire.
A few weeks ago, the drone was used to search a cornfield for a disabled man who had gone missing. The man was found at a different location, but Newman said he was glad to have the drone available.
"It was effective for ruling out that he was in that cornfield," he said.
A new Idaho law that went into effect in July prohibits the use of drones for surveillance without the subject's written permission or without a warrant. However, it exempts emergency responses for safety, search and rescue operations, and controlled substance investigations.
Hobbyists using remote-controlled aircraft purely for recreational purposes are also shielded by the law.
Canyon and Twin Falls counties are the only two in Idaho authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration to operate drones. Canyon County officials were involved in efforts to get the state law passed and support it.
"We were glad to see those limitations put into place," said Mark Tolman, the county's fleet director and one of three county employees certified to fly the drone from the ground using hand-held controls.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho also took part in discussions before the law was passed. The ACLU was most concerned that government agencies that use drones operate transparently, have the proper protocols in place to protect the privacy of residents and have a complaint system if people feel their rights have been violated, said advocacy director Leo Morales.
"There are good uses for this kind of technology," Morales said. "But as Idahoans we value our privacy. It's something protected by the Constitution."
Tolman, a licensed pilot, said the right to privacy is the biggest concern when flying the drone, which he calls an unmanned aircraft system, or UAS.
"We don't care what's in somebody's backyard when we're searching for a missing child," he said. "Anything else is none of our business."
Six other states have passed drone restrictions. In Illinois, Florida, Montana and Tennessee, police must obtain warrants when using drones or are prohibited from introducing drone images in court.
Virginia imposed a two-year moratorium on drone use by police to study privacy concerns. Texas went a different direction critics there say new restrictions too heavily favor law enforcement over private citizens.
The new Idaho law has not affected either county's ability to use its drones, Tolman and Newman said.
Outside of training runs, the two counties have each sent their drones into the air only a handful of times during the past year. They generally fly about 100 feet off the ground and have battery power to stay in the air about 20 minutes.
A couple of weeks ago, Tolman said, the Canyon County drone was sent up to search for evidence in a criminal case. He said the evidence collected is likely to play a "key role" in the prosecution.
"We got what we were looking for," he said.
Senate Assistant Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise, who introduced the drone bill, said he hasn't heard any complaints since the law went into effect.
"The only call I received was from a hobbyist who was worried he couldn't fly his hobby plane. I told him about the exemption," Winder said.
FLYING SINCE 1916
The CIA has flown unarmed drones over Afghanistan since 2000 and began arming them after 9/11.
In February 2002, the CIA employed an unmanned Predator drone in an attempt to kill Osama bin Laden. Instead of striking bin Laden, the Hellfire missile fired from the drone killed several Afghan civilians collecting scrap metal, according to an account in The Nation magazine.
But drones first took to the skies decades earlier, during test flights in World War I. Elmer Sperry, the inventor of the gyroscope, converted a U.S. Navy Curtiss N-9 trainer into the first radio-controlled drone, according to the website of the PBS program "NOVA." Known as a Sperry Aerial Torpedo, the plane carried a 300-pound bomb for 50 miles in several test flights but never saw combat.
During the Vietnam War, drones were used to collect military intelligence without being detected.
The Idaho National Laboratory near Idaho Falls has established a nationally recognized research program that could produce drones for the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy that fly themselves through the use of sensors and sophisticated computer programs.
This summer, scientists used a small drone to study pygmy rabbit habitat in Blaine County. The researchers from Boise State University, the University of Idaho and Washington State University, along with the federal Bureau of Land Management, used high-resolution cameras to make color and near-infrared digital images.
The photos will assist the researchers in evaluating vegetation cover from predators and the quality of diet for the rabbits, which rely on a single plant sagebrush for food.
"In two hours, the plane could cover several square kilometers. There's no way you could gather that kind of information on the ground," said Jennifer Forbey, an assistant professor of biological sciences at Boise State.
The researchers were careful to stay on public land so they didn't run into any privacy issues.
The BLM used a drone recently north of American Falls to conduct a weed survey.
The Office of Wildland Fire at the U.S. Interior Department is seeking authorization to use a drone to assess rehabilitation projects at wildfire sites.
The potential is great for many different areas, Forbey said.
"Without this technology, we could get only a small snapshot of the landscape," she said.
John Sowell: 377-6423, Twitter: @IDS_Sowell