Every sheriff’s department in New Jersey is now part of Project Lifesaver, a program that outfits Alzheimer’s patients and those who are autistic with transmitter wristwatches, so they can be tracked and located if they ever wander off.

Now we get word the Somerset County sheriff’s department has become the first law enforcement group in the nation to get a specially designed drone equipped with same type of tracking device that’s used on the ground.

“This is a big advantage because we are now increasing the range, that ground range of one mile to anywhere from 5 to 7 miles, and of course a drone can be moved around,” said Gene Saunders, CEO and founder of Project Lifesaver.

“This is important because when I was a cop in Bridgewater, we’d search for days before we’d find somebody that wandered off, and sometimes we’d find the body of the individual in the woods. Now we can get to them a lot faster and the drone will speed up this process even more,” said Somerset County Sheriff Frank Provenzano.

He pointed out a patient with autism or Alzheimer’s may wander several miles in a short amount of time, and quickly go out of range of a traditional ground-tracking device.

“We put the drone in the air and we can pick up the frequency right away and follow that direction,” he said.

“When someone goes missing, this officer right at the scene takes the drones right out of his car, launches it. Now you’re covering a 7-mile circumference within minutes,” Saunders said. “It can locate somebody that’s got some distance on you really quick. You now cut your search time from hours to minutes, and whenever you’re searching for a person with a cognitive disorder, the clock is not working for you, it’s working against you.”

He said the general rule of thumb for someone with Alzheimer’s is that after 24 hours, the individual will be in big trouble.

"When you’re talking about a child with autism, you’re talking minutes before they can be in serious trouble, but now using the drone changes that situation and it lets us find them quicker," Provenzano said.

The sheriff said “it’s a very good thing for the client. We call them, the caregiver. We’re trying to bring their loved ones home. That’s the biggest thing.”

Saunders said helicopters are sometimes used to search for individuals, but they’re expensive and not always available.

He said about two years ago , his company developed the tracking technology with Lockheed Martin to allow drones to be used.

“Now we can send this thing out in about 5 minutes of arrival on the scene, and right away we’ve got a 50 to 7- mile range in 360 degree radius,” he said.

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