To say the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) has found VideoRay remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) indispensable would be an understatement. The department has relied on its Defender and Pro 4 to assist with dozens of assignments, from criminal investigations to drowning recoveries.
"We use them both in and out of state if requested.Many police departments, sheriff's departments, state parks, our state bureau of investigation, FBI, and national parks have all requested our assistance," noted Capt. Matt Majors, who is part of TWRA's boating investigations team. The squad is responsible for the care and maintenance of the ROVs and will respond on an as-needed basis day or night, he said.
TWRA's history with VideoRay stretches back to 2012, when it purchased the Pro 4, which is still fully operational. It acquired the Defender in 2018 "frankly because Tennessee is a very long state," Majors explained. "We wanted to strategically place it to minimize our response times to those people and departments in need."
The Pro 4 was obtained through a port security grant to assist with statewide underwater security needs as well as search requests.
"We have used the Pro 4 for evidence searches, port security sweeps of bridges and river frontage, body recoveries, and searches for helicopters/parts, cars, guns, safes, boats, barges, motorcycles, and trucks," Majors said.
He estimates that the unit has been used for approximately 80 body recoveries. Several of those have involved victims in water-filled quarries that range up to 300 feet deep. Under these circumstances, "the danger to divers is quite high," Majors said. By using the Pro 4, that danger is minimized, he added.
The addition of the Defender has given TWRA more power and flexibility in the water, not to mention expanding the agency's footprint to respond to incidents across the state and beyond.
Majors said both VideoRay ROVs give the agency a distinct advantage when used in crime scene investigations.
"It gives us the ability to search and find any evidence effectively, thus returning our officers back in service for calls quicker," he said. "There is also a large component of professionalism to be able to view and record underwater crime scenes without any human interaction. It is a great way to preserve and document evidence."
From a body search-and-recovery perspective, the submersibles offer several benefits.
"The amount of time that our agency used to spend on a body recovery could have gone days if not more than a week prior to getting the VideoRay ROVs," said Capt. George Birdwell, who is also part of the boating investigations team.
By shortening the recovery times, families that have loved ones missing can get closure much quicker, Majors added.
Both men agree that portability is another major advantage offered by the ROVs.
"We can run it from a boat, land, and docks with great ease," Majors said. "And we have had it lowered into canyons within our state parks to find drowning victims."
In addition to Birdwell and Majors, Capt. Joe Campbell is trained to operate the Pro 4 as well as the Defender. Other certified Defender operators are Sgt. Dustin Buttram, Officer Jeff Roberson, and Officer Josh Landrum.
Majors offered some advice for those debating whether to purchase a submersible.
"If any department would like to purchase a ROV, I would highly suggest VideoRay. They need to identify folks to maintain it who will treat it with care and always ensure it is ready to go. Training is key and continued use is a must. Most of our true knowledge from the ROV has been field experience. Train with it. It will save manpower and time afield when searching for any item underwater."
Enjoy the gallery of TWRA photos below.