Summit County Water Rescue Team deploys new, state-of-the-art underwater drone to help with rescues

A Summit County Sheriff's Office officer presents the VideoRay Pro 4, the county's new remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) at Dillon Reservoir on Wednesday, May 23.
Hugh Carey /

In 2008, 26-year-old Frisco resident Adam Brown fell overboard from a boat and drowned in Dillon Reservoir. Colorado State Park rangers brought in a side-scanning sonar system that located Brown’s body, but bad weather prevented Summit County Water Rescue Team divers from doing a recovery until three days after the accident.

In appreciation for the rescue team’s efforts and the outpouring of support from the Summit community, Brown’s family created a memorial fund with donated money going to the Summit Water Rescue Team to purchase a side-scan sonar system, the same kind that helped bring Adam’s body back to his family.

The county graciously accepted the funds and purchased the sonar system for its search boats. However, recovery with divers is still a challenging, risky endeavor. With diver safety, and Adam Brown’s memory, firmly in mind, the county raised $60,000 from grants and donations to purchase the newest tool in its recovery arsenal – a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV).

The ROV, which looks like a miniature yellow robot, is manufactured by Pottstown, Pennsylvania-based company VideoRay. In its marketing material, Videoray says that this particular model, the Pro 4, is “the most advanced, capable, and versatile small ROV on the market today.” Weighing about 5 pounds, the Pro 4 can dive up to 1,000 feet below the surface with its four thrusters and travel at around 4 knots with a current.

The Pro 4 is equipped with a mechanical claw that can grip with up to five pounds of pressure, which is enough to be able to grab  hold on to a body and pull it up to the surface while being reeled in on its cord. It is also equipped with imaging sonar with a range of 300 feet and a dynamic range color camera with LED lighting that can illuminate the darkest lake bottom. The Pro 4 is powered by a hardwire connection to a portable electric generator on boat or on shore, and can be maneuvered with video game-like controls by an operator who can see what the vehicle sees on sonar or video.

Sergeant Mark Watson of the Summit County Sheriff’s Office said the agency is lucky to have such an advanced tool at its disposal.

“We are the only law enforcement agency in Colorado to have one of these vehicles,” Watson said. “High altitude diving can be dangerous, and safety is our top priority.”

Watson added that the county now has a “triple threat” of recovery tools that will ensure that the county is fully prepared for future recovery efforts.

“We have the side-scanning sonar that can help find the location of bodies, the ROV that can go down and see down there and even perform a recovery, as well as divers who can be brought in when they’ve zeroed in on the body,” Watson said.

While the idea of a body-recovery vehicle may seem morbid to some, it may make a world of positive consolation for families who lose loved ones to drowning. ROV search expert and training consultant Tom Crossmon, who has been helping train the rescue team on how to use the vehicle, said he had used the ROV to perform 75 successful recoveries in all kinds of conditions.

“I’m retired, and I run a for-profit business for nonprofit reasons,” Crossmon said. “It’s important to me that families get closure by recovering loved ones, and this vehicle is the fastest, safest way to do it.”

Rescue team leader Drew Fontana, who has been scuba diving since he was 12 and performs an average of four body recoveries a year, said that the ROV will make his team’s job a lot faster and safer.

“Diving at altitude is dangerous,” Fontana said. “We can’t go more than 80 feet below the surface, nor stay out for more than 15 or 20 minutes at a time. By having a tool like this available we can quickly zero in on a body and spend more time with recovery and less time searching.”

Watson said his office appreciates all the community’s generosity in donating funds for the ROV. Among the grantees and donors were the Adam Brown Memorial Fund, Breckenridge Grand Vacations, the Dillon Reservoir Recreation Committee, as well as private donors Mike Gould and Brian Holt.

Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said his office is thrilled to have the capability of the ROV at its disposal, and has already been called on to assist in a recovery operation.

“Now that we have this tool, it makes us more capable than ever,” FitzSimons said. “In fact, we got a call from the San Miguel sheriff, Bill Masters, requesting assistance in trying to locate a missing person out in a lake out over there. I called the missing person’s father down there and reassured him that we’re coming. You can imagine, as a parent, how distraught he is.”

FitzSimons said that his office is willing to share the ROV with any other agency in Colorado that needs it and the crew that operate it.

“I will send them anywhere in the state to help, there’s nowhere I won’t send them.”


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