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Rover gives sheriff's department eye under water

It probably couldn't find the Titanic -- but to the Merced County Sheriff's Department, it's their new underwater eye and more.

Members of the sheriff's dive team were at Lake Yosemite on Wednesday to test the department's new remotely operated underwater vehicle -- a small robot that can help investigators see underwater at depths up to 600 feet (the Titanic is submerged 2 miles).

The vehicle, or ROV, which is about 2.5 feet long, is controlled by an operator on a boat. The robot is equipped with a video camera that sends images to its operator at the surface, via a television monitor.

The robot comes equipped with a lighting system, a mechanical claw that can pick up objects and a sonar system with a maximum radius of 600 feet.

Sheriff Mark Pazin said the ROV will be a useful tool to find underwater objects -- and protect the area's waterways, canals and aqueducts.

The robot can also be used in situations where the waters are too dangerous to send divers.

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"We have to ensure the integrity of the waterway system here in Merced County," Pazin said. "This really completes a true self-sufficiency program that I have always envisioned."

Cmdr. Doug Jensen of the dive team said the ROV can also find some objects faster than a diver.

"Should anyone decide to plant any type of explosive or something like that underwater, we can go down and inspect that type of thing," Jensen said.

On Tuesday, the dive team practiced using the ROV by locating a speed boat, submerged under 16 feet of water at Lake Yosemite. It went down last year. Luckily, the owner was able to swim to safety.

Using the sonar on the ROV, as well as on the boat, investigators positioned the ROV to view the sunken boat. After finding the speed boat, a team of divers then attached large air bags to the boat, lifting it off the bottom of the lake to the surface.

The recovered boat, which was covered in mud and silt, will be returned to its owner, Jensen said.

The ROV was purchased with funds from a $200,000 federal Homeland Security grant, Pazin said. The ROV had a price tag of about $60,000. About $100,000 of the money was used to purchase a new 36-foot equipment truck for the dive team, Jensen said.

No county dollars were used for the purchases, Jensen said. Pazin said the dive team previously operated from an old bread truck.

The ROV can also be useful to search for evidence or bodies. Jensen said the robot has already been used for a few missions outside of the county.

"It really broadens our ability," Jensen said.

The ROV is the latest piece of high-tech equipment the sheriff's department has added in recent months.

In April, the department purchased a 2005 Robinson R44 Raven II helicopter for $400,000. The helicopter comes equipped with an infrared camera that allows officers enhanced vision at night, plus a 20 million-candlepower spotlight that can illuminate a city block.

Despite the cost, Pazin said the ROV is necessary to help the department respond effectively to emergencies in the water -- particularly in the event of an explosive device being used.

"We are so beyond saying that it couldn't happen here," Pazin said.

Pazin said Homeland Security grants are generally geared toward purchases of equipment and capitol improvement projects.

The sheriff's department used a boat donated by Boats Unlimited during Wednesday's operation, Jensen said.

Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.

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