Alaska State Trooper helicopters now have cameras with advanced technology that will help assist with search-and-rescue efforts.

Helo-2, based in Fairbanks, and Helo-3 out of Anchorage are outfitted with the new system.

“It’s basically a 300mm lens attached to the camera,” said Trooper Zach Johnson.

Johnson serves as a tactical flight officer, a new position created just to operate the system which includes two electro-optical cameras and an infrared camera.

“There’s a lot of switches and buttons. So getting familiar with them, especially when you’re operating in a high-stress environment, it takes some practice,” Johnson said.

For troopers, the technology could be a life-saver.

“This is a search-and-rescue platform, essentially, on steroids,” said Lt. Eric Olsen. “Every second counts when it comes to a search-and-rescue.”

Johnson showed how the cameras work Tuesday afternoon, during a demonstration flight taking off from the Palmer Airport.

“We got some information a hiker is overdue. Not sure what his condition is. Heard he was hiking between Gannet Point and Colony Lake, so we’ll be looking in that area,” Johnson explained the test scenario.

The cameras, which were installed in January, have already assisted in four missions. Johnson said before they had the technology, troopers used binoculars to do a visual scan of an area.

“This makes our lives easier. Makes us a whole lot more efficient carrying out these searches,” Johnson said.

Alaska measures more than 660,000 square miles, which can sometimes make searching for a lost hiker like finding a needle in a haystack.

“Especially if you’re dealing with wooded areas or people who aren’t wearing bright colors, sometimes you can fly over them repeatedly and might not be able to pick them out, if there’s not much contrast or if they’re not moving around,” Johnson said.

The infrared camera separates people (or animals, like moose) from their surroundings. Johnson used the other lenses to zoom in on the scene once troopers spotted the demonstration's “lost” hiker.

“There we go, I’ve got him. Coming around to 11 o’clock, point-four miles off the nose,” he told the pilot.

On a cloudy day the technology was essential for finding the test subject, who was obscured by a layer of low-hanging fog.

“You can imagine if we were doing this without the camera, it would be a very hard search,” Johnson explained.

The cameras are expensive, at $500,000 each, and Olsen said the helicopters' mapping systems also cost about $100,000. He said the money came from the state Department of Public Safety’s general operating budget.

Troopers said the cameras are worth the money if it means saving lives. Last year, troopers participated in more than 500 search-and-rescue operations statewide.

“You go out and every search you do, you want to go out and say you did everything you could. Going forward, we can do a lot more than we have before. Even more good news for more families,” Johnson said.

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