Austin Police Officer, John Buell, has converted a Palomino truck camper into a mobile law enforcement and drone command center. As the Founder of Drone Pilot, Inc., John actually flies drones from inside his truck camper during public safety missions. Then he takes his camper out for some family fun.
Perhaps never before in the history of truck camping has an individual found more function and purpose for a truck camper than John Buell. At any given time, John’s Palomino SS-550 truck camper is a mobile police station, professional drone operation unit, emergency escape vehicle, and – yes – a family fun and vacation machine.
John always leaves his truck camper mounted on his Ford F150 and keeps the rig fully loaded and ready to deploy. In his line of work, you never know when you’ll be needed, or where, or how long you will be required to stay on location. It could be a week protecting the annual South by South West music festival, or a month of post-hurricane search and rescue drone operations. No matter the mission, John’s truck camper is an essential tool in his public safety arsenal.
John and his business partner, Gene Robinson (known as the grandfather of unmanned aerial search and rescue), have been at the forefront of drone applications for public safety, law enforcement, and fire investigation. Through Drone Pilot, Inc., John and Gene have pioneered standard practices for legal drone operation, safety, data analysis, and training. Their go-anywhere drone command center of choice? A truck camper, of course!
On a much lighter note, John is also an avid truck camper for family fun. He loves taking his family to the beach for some much-deserved rest and relaxation. He also loves setting out to explore the west including of Colorado, Missouri, Oklahoma, and New Mexico.
Get ready for one of the most dynamic and interesting stories ever told in Truck Camper Magazine. Meet John Buell.
Above: John and Shannon Buell truck camping in New Mexico
TCM: Before we talk about your police work and drone business, tell us how you first got introduced to truck campers.
John: I have been into outdoor hiking, biking, and recreation my whole life. My wife and I have gotten away from tenting as we now require more comfort. I started looking at pull-behind trailers and Class C motorhomes, and then came across truck campers.
Pop-up truck campers were particularly interesting because they were smaller, easier to maneuver, and provided an agile support system for both family outings and my work. A pop-up camper rig can instantly transform for work and play, and various jobs in between.
My camper research began about four years ago. During that time, the Palomino SS-550 premiered in Truck Camper Magazine. After reading the article, I went to Princess Craft RV in Round Rock, Texas, and bought the camper from them. The Palomino is our first camper.
Above: Public Safety Demonstration, notice all the different drones on the picnic table and boxes on the ground
TCM: How did you first get into drones? Was it a personal interest, or for work?
John: I’ve been flying something since I was a kid. I started with building and flying remote control planes.
As a police officer, I was responsible for the wiring for undercover operations investigating organized crime. For example, there might have been an undercover bust at a hotel. I would install microphones, cameras, and transmitters for the operation.
The same small transmitter and camera technology also worked on my remote control planes. Ten years before commercial drones were widely available, I was playing with cameras on RC planes. They weren’t drones at this point. They were remote control planes with cameras.
Above: Video showing how drones are used for Search and Rescue including the Fire at Great Hills apartment complex, Austin, Texas
When commercial drones debuted, I knew they would change public safety. With the introduction of the Naza flight controller by DJI, affordable drones could hover without expertise. That allowed me to do my job and communicate. The ability to hover the drone and do other things was the key. I could take aerial shots and communicate with officers.
I always say that the greatest thing drones are made for are the three Ds: dirty, dull, and dangerous.
TCM: What led you to start Drone Pilot, Inc. in 2014? And what does your company do?
John: I had a little company that I started about seven years ago called Buell’s Aerial Survey and Consulting. I would promote roof inspections and other aerial tasks with a drone. Drones were relatively new at the time and public safety wasn’t yet looking at them.
As the implications for drones in public safety became increasingly apparent, I came across Gene Robinson. At the time, Gene was the only person doing search and rescue with RC planes and cameras. He was taking high-resolution images and finding people and bodies that could not be located. Gene is now known as the grandfather of unmanned aerial search and rescue.
When police officers need advice, we seek experience. I would rather get advice from a 30-year police veteran than from someone who has only been on the force for a year.
Above: Gene Robinson, the grandfather of unmanned aerial search and rescue
Gene Robinson had the most experience with drones and search and rescue. We started talking and that led to the founding of Drone Pilot, Inc. He was a firefighter and I’m a cop. The combination of our professional experiences and technical drone backgrounds was exactly what the business needed.
In the beginning, we had a 333 Exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). With the 333 Exemption, we had permission to use drones for search and rescue. All of our missions at that point were non-profit flown under Gene’s company Remote Pilot Search Services LLC.
Then there was a lawsuit with the FAA to commercially use drones for search and rescue. This lawsuit and the changes it created paved the way for exemptions to operate drones commercially. Gene Robinson was directly involved in the lawsuit and helped change the rules for the use of drones in public safety with an operator’s license. He’s a trailblazer.
Above: Search and Rescue Mission, Bartlett, Texas
TCM: How are police and fire departments using drones? Is it all search and rescue?
John: Search and rescue leads the way because it’s the most complex, but drones can be applied to almost every part of my public safety work.
Public safety drone work involves a lot of data analysis. You need to know what to look for. Trace evidence from drone imaging often helps to solve a case. We have a lot of public safety cases where a drone operator is able to track where a person walked or a vehicle drove across a field. This trace evidence has led to more evidence that helps to solve the crime.
For example, we spotted tire tracks in an area where you wouldn’t normally have tire tracks. That trace evidence led to the discovery of a murder weapon in a triple homicide.
Gene coined the phrase, “squinting” to describe the process of analyzing drone data. “Squinting” has become something of an industry phrase for drone data analysis.
TCM: Why is it important for public safety professionals to get trained for drone operation?
John: Drone hobbyists can follow the FAA rules of recreational drone operation and have fun. Commercial drone operators can take the FAA license test, follow the FAA rules, and operate in a safe matter.
For a public safety drone operator, things are very different. We often have to fly in confined spaces like close up to buildings and other obstacles which are high stress. The environment we are flying in is never pristine. We need to be able to fly at night which is a very complex mission.
At Drone Pilot, Inc., we train the safest-most skilled drone operators, train flight teams to a proficiency standard, and guide them through the FAA licensing, reporting, and documentation process. It’s a beginning to end partnership with our public safety client. Public safety professionals have to be the best drone operators because people’s lives are at stake.
Above: A Police Training Video
TCM: Where did you get the idea to use a truck camper for your drone business?
John: When we get a call for dispatch, it is often a day’s drive. At a moment’s notice, I can throw the drones in the camper and I’m off and running. The truck camper is already set up with everything I need; clothes, water, food, etc. That saves a lot of time. I have the ability to deploy quickly.
Onsite there is a high level of concentration to operate a drone. We are looking at a screen and analyzing data. Inside the truck camper, we have a sterile cockpit and are isolated from outside distractions.
The truck camper rig has all the support equipment we need. My generator is hooked up. We even have air conditioning to be comfortable during hot Texas summers. The truck camper spoils us.
TCM: So you’re inside the truck camper operating the drone?
John: Yes, I am inside my Palomino SS-550 flying the drone. We have an external rig with antennas. I have a visual observer I communicate with via radio who stays outside, watches the drone, and clears the airspace. He or she also keeps a clear and sterile environment for launching the drone and landing.
TCM: Have you made any modifications to the camper to better suit drone operation?
John: I took the table out for more interior space. The SS-550 is compact. I actually sit on the countertop to operate the drone. I still haven’t figured out how to make a pop-up table that can be out of the way. For now, I just have a tray when I need a dinette table.
I also added another battery. I had to beef up a lot of the electrical components because we pull a lot of power with the drone’s battery packs.
I used to have a 2000-watt Yamaha generator, but my equipment pulled too much juice. Then, I tried two 2000-watt Yamaha generators. That still wasn’t enough. Now I have a Cabela’s 4750-watt generator which is very loud but provides the needed power.
I have everything from velcro to soldering equipment to a kitchen sink in my camper. I can do anything I need to do for work or fun.
TCM: It’s surprising that you needed that much power for the drones. Do you use the rest of the Palomino truck camper during a drone operation?
John: It has a queen size bed to take a rest during continued operations. Public safety drone operations can be very intense, so having a place to relax or take a quick nap is essential.
Even though I use the camper for public safety, we had to pay for it out of our own pocket. We don’t get a ton of donations. We would love to have a big camper with an F350 but, when we’re trying to watch your budget, the Palomino fit the bill.
Above: Hays County Search and Rescue
The pop-up truck camper is also good because we need to be able to maneuver off-road. Sometimes we’ll drive through a cornfield or tractor path. To have a compact rig is almost required. There are times when a hard side camper would work, but we would have needed to park further away.
Above: Camper parked next to CrossFit, central downtown Austin, Texas during South by Southwest
TCM: You said via email that you use the truck camper rig for special events. Tell us about these events and how the camper is helpful.
John: As a police officer I work the annual South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. It’s a long overtime assignment where I work 16 hour days. If I had to drive home every night, my rest time would be minimal since I live about two hours outside of Austin.
With the camper, I can stay overnight at the event. I get more sleep and don’t have to fight traffic. Fellow officers are spending hours driving home and back. I can stay on location at special events and disasters for days. It helps me to be a more effective police officer.
TCM: Having a truck camper makes you a more effective police officer. That’s just fantastic. Where are you camping in downtown Austin?
John: At every event I’ve been to with the truck camper rig I’ve had no problems when I ask local businesses if I can stay there. What business wouldn’t want a police officer camping out?
Above: John using a DJI S1000
TCM: What make and model of drone are you using for work?
John: We fly everything. We fly a $150,000 Super Bat that stays up for eight hours. It’s 35 pounds and takes the same amount of gas as a weed eater.
Above: Martin UAV Super Bat drone
I also have a 2-inch by 2-inch 100-mm micro drone that can clear an entire house in a few minutes. You put goggles on and it’s an immersive environment. I can fly anywhere in the house that there’s a door opening. We might fly inside houses that are dangerous.
Above: A drone demonstration
Gene was a Chief UA Pilot at NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) and he flew the Super Bat in conditions where firefighters couldn’t be. The wildfires were grounding airplanes. The Super Bat was the only thing getting a view of the changing fire line to make sure the firefighters on the ground would be safe.
Above: DJI S900 drone
TCM: In some of the pictures you’re flying drones by DJI.
John: I have a love-hate outlook towards DJI. DJI leads the way and makes very complex and reliable drones. My love and hate come from the fact that they are strictly for commercial support and offer little support for public safety.
An example of this lack of support occurred during Hurricane Harvey. We had permission from the FAA to fly, but our DJI drone locked us out when we got close to the airports. We actually had to get permission from Dà-Jiāng Innovations (DJI) in China to fly over disaster areas in Texas. As first responders, we can’t wait hours on end to get permission.
Above: DJI Inspire 1 drone
TCM: That’s outrageous, from so many perspectives.
John: It is. The problem is that public safety is a very small portion of DJI’s overall business. We also don’t have the power to affect change with a Chinese-based product.
Above: 3DR Iris+ drone
TCM: Unbelievable. What models of DJI drones are you typically flying?
John: The DJI Mavic is our go-to drone for most situations. DJI Mavics have more flight time than many military drones. They are very reliable and affordable. The bigger DOD drones are too expensive for public safety work. We can’t afford a $200,000 drone, but we can afford a $1,500 DJI Mavic. In the hands of a trained drone operator, a Mavic is very effective.
I have also flown missions with the DJI Spark, Mavic Air, and multiple Inspires. Most of the flying during Hurricane Harvey was done with the Mavic because the flooded and destroyed areas were two to four miles from the launch area. The Mavic had the required distance.
TCM: What was the situation surrounding the drone missions for Hurricane Harvey?
John: Our police department does not have drones or funding for drone operations. However, when I asked our Chief if I could deploy with the drone to help the Hurricane Harvey search and rescue, he said, “Absolutely”. He knew it was necessary and didn’t question anything. He let three officers deploy for 19 days of twelve-on twelve-off shifts for Hurricane Harvey.
With the truck camper, I was self-sufficient. I pulled a trailer with batteries, a generator, water, and 15 five-gallon jugs of gasoline. We deployed with the huge motorcade. I have an aerial shot with my truck camper and trailer. It was a huge response, all integrated with the Texas Commission On Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and EPA.
We started on the coast from Port Aransas to Port Arthur which was a wind event. That was more of an assessment for hazardous materials. During the hurricane, hazardous materials were carried for miles.
The drone was effective to get into the danger zone, drop down to within two feet of a potentially hazardous material container, see if it was capped, and read the placard to identify what material it contained.
As I hovered the drone over the container, I took a screen capture and texted it to the response team on the ground. In the image, they could see the container, placard, and the location coordinates. Based on that information, they could immediately send a dispatch knowing what was needed to handle that situation and material.
Normally that would have required a person in a vehicle and/or on foot to take a picture and call it in. With the drone, I can get 14 to 20 targets in the same amount of time it takes ground teams to reach one.
Houston and Beaumont had a flooding event. That mission turned into a health facility and water treatment assessment. There were chlorine containers that had ruptured and were leaking. We had to fly in and report the condition and location of the containers. During Hurricane Harvey, the drone made it into many dangerous situations and dirty places.
The city operator for a particular facility was scared to assess a flooded fresh water intake facility because of an alligator she knew to be in the area. She needed to go to the facility and inspect the electrical components for damage, but she was concerned about an alligator.
With the drone, we were able to see that the lines she needed to inspect were intact and the water line was not high enough to cause damage to these vital components. She could also tell that the intake was working from the drone image allowing the fresh water intake facility to be turned on allowing this city to get water services back. And no, we didn’t see the alligator.
TCM: It’s almost hard to imagine a safer and more efficient method of achieving the same goals. Do you ever use drones for personal enjoyment, or are they strictly for work?
John: I love to fly. When I’m working with drones, I love to do it. Now it’s about the challenge of complex operations. I like getting a drone into a spot that you normally wouldn’t be able to go.
In one recent call out, there was an active shooter with a rifle. Two organizations (not trained by us) flew five drones and crashed all five. Our drone was the only one flying and giving real-time critical data to tactical teams on the shooter’s location. We’re all about the complex and challenging missions!
TCM: Are there any other drone missions that stick out as memorable?
John: We were hired by Jeff Bezo’s aerospace manufacturer, Blue Origin, to document a rocket launch. We were able to fly the five-mile distance and record the launch, capsule retrieval, and rocket retrieval. In all, there were 16 drones and flight teams. We knew the precise second where they would be. Most of the drones could not make it back and had to be landed remotely.
TCM: That’s insane. I bet the resulting video was unbelievable. Let’s change gears. How do you use your truck camper rig with your family?
John: We go to Port Aransas to camp on the beach. The beaches are great for camping and our family uses Port Aransas for vacations. We try to go there at least once a year, but we haven’t been there since Hurricane Harvey.
We take George, our pug, with us. George is almost in every family vacation picture when we’re camping. We have also gone to Colorado, Missouri, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and to the west coast. That’s what we like to do.
It’s so relaxing to travel with our truck camper. We can change plans on the fly. We can go to campsites or we can pull over and sleep anywhere. We like to go and explore. We are impulsive.
TCM: That’s the best part of a truck camper rig; go anywhere, camp anywhere, tow anything.
John: Absolutely. Our truck camper allows us to go to Walmart parking lots or visit someone’s house. We bring our own bed so we’re not imposing. It gives us the flexibility and freedom to do what we want to do.
I use a towing system for my motorcycle that lifts just the front wheel. The motorcycle is towed behind my rig and I really can’t even tell most of the time it’s there. I attach a camera to the rear of the camper just to monitor it in transit.
TCM: Is there anything else you would like fellow truck campers to know about your truck camping lifestyle?
John: Using our camper as an emergency vehicle is another aspect that I really didn’t think about when I bought it.
When our house was built, it was not in a flood plain. Then there were new subdivisions built nearby, and now our house is in a flood plain. We get big rains and flash floods and have had up to six inches of water in our house.
Our truck and camper are always loaded up and ready to go. As a family, we can get the dogs and cats, throw in packed bags, and be ready to go. It’s our bug-out vehicle.
During one such evacuation, we had enough of our life intact in the camper to be comfortable. The rig gave us the ability to accept what we couldn’t change.
With the camper, we are not going to impose on someone or trying to find a hotel. That’s a big thing for us. We had two big floods back to back. We slept in the truck camper while the floors were drying out. My wife and I stayed in our camper for a week.
TCM: I don’t think there’s anyone on the planet that gets more use or function out of their truck camper. It’s like a member of your family.
John: It really is. Getting back to the drones, everyone is scared of big brother and privacy. I’m using drones as a response tool that can save someone else’s life. We are not spying on civilians.
If robotic systems like drones help me make a better decision, it’s huge. We’re protectors of everyone, including ourselves. A robot or drone is there to give us information to make better decisions from a safe distance.
John Buell’s Rig
Truck: 2012 Ford F-150 Ecoboost, four-wheel drive, single rear wheel, gas, crew cab, short bed
Camper: 2015 Palomino SS-550 Backpack Edition
Tie-Downs and Turnbuckles: Torklift
Suspension: Air Bags
Gear: Generator rack