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Babylon Town’s own municipal drone soars in its test run

Amityville Village businessman Vinny Samuel, center, shows Babylon

Amityville Village businessman Vinny Samuel, center, shows Babylon Town officials Pat Farrell, John Ciffel and Tony Martinez a drone that he donated to the town's public safety office on Friday, June 10, 2016. Credit: Steve Pfost

Babylon Town’s first municipal drone made its maiden flight last week, soaring 110 feet over Town Hall before returning to hover, waist-high, in Town Hall Park.

Officials said the device, a gift from an Amityville Village businessman, could be used at fires, in building inspections and even at town beaches.

“It’s a great tool,” said Pat Farrell, deputy safety commissioner.

The drone — battery-powered, piloted by a town employee and equipped with a camera streaming video to a smartphone or tablet computer — could search a town beach for a lost child, he said, or permit an inspector to go over every inch of the antenna array behind Town Hall from the ground instead of using costly climbing equipment.

Town officials said they believe Babylon is the first drone-equipped town in Suffolk County. In Nassau, Hempstead has two, which it uses to record promotional events and survey beach bird habitats.

The donor to Babylon, Vinny Samuel, a partner in the industrial laundry company JVK Operations, let his mind roam further afield for the use of the device: a firefighter could use it to swap out his broken radio and retrieve a new one without leaving his post at the scene of a fire; workers could use it to haul a rope onto a building roof.

Samuel, a recreational drone pilot who does much of his flying in Huntington, said he decided to make his gift after recent fires, including one in Copiague that destroyed one home, damaged four others and sparked a brushfire on a nearby uninhabited island.

With a bird’s-eye view of the scene, firefighters could have “easily prevented” the fire’s spread, Samuel said.

The DJI Phantom drone he gave the town cost about $1,500, he said. It weighs about 3 pounds and has a range of 3 miles.

To demonstrate, Samuel attached his phone to a remote controller and powered up the drone’s four rotors. With his thumbs, he pushed two small control sticks on the controller and the drone ascended at a rate of 15 feet per second. It sounded like a swarm of bees.

The video stream of buildings and streets stretched out in high definition to the Great South Bay. The camera was dead steady. Samuel toggled to a map representation showing street and place names.

“Does it have the ability to zoom?” Deputy Supervisor Tony Martinez asked.

“No. They don’t want you to, because of privacy,” Samuel said.

“What if the battery’s running low?” Martinez asked.

Samuel pressed a button and an electronic woman’s voice said: “Go home.”

The drone, which had been nosing up to the antenna array, returned on automatic pilot to float in front of the assembled officials. “Landing,” the woman’s voice said, and it lay itself down on the grass.

With John Asbury

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