Drone Provides Aerial Vantage Point For Police Work
Police have added to their law enforcement toolkit an airborne device intended, in part, to broaden their view of the terrain, especially when searches are underway.
Lieutenant David Kullgren, a member of the police department’s command staff who oversees administrative services, said that battery-powered drones are fast becoming tools used by police departments when police want to survey much terrain quickly in searching for missing persons. In August, Lt Kullgren and Patrol Sergeant Liam Seabrook were certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to operate the police department’s drone.
Lt Kullgren’s interest in drone flight extends from his knowledge of things aeronautical; he holds a private pilot’s license.
“It has its benefits... You can deploy a drone within minutes of arrival on scene,” the lieutenant said. Drones, which are allowed to operate at altitudes of up to 400 feet, can cover much terrain, rapidly providing police with a view of a broad area, he said. A drone, which provides visual information, complements the keen sense of smell provided by police dogs, he added.
A gimbal-mounted camera positioned below the drone’s four upward-facing propellers provides police with either still images or video of a scene. Such imagery may be transmitted live to a smart phone, which is part of the drone’s control unit. It can also be recorded, possibly serving as evidence.
Lt Kullgren explained that as long as what an airborne police drone “sees” is in “plain view,” and is not augmented by devices such as zoom lenses or thermal imagers, police do not need a search warrant to operate a drone. However, if the camera has augmented capabilities that exceed the limits of plain view, police then need to seek and obtain a court-approved warrant for such surveillance, he said.
Lt Kullgren said police are seeking to obtain a more sophisticated drone to expand their capabilities.
Recently, Danbury Fire Department members came to Hawleyville to aid Newtown emergency staffers with a search for two missing people. The Danbury firefighters brought their drone, which has thermal imaging capabilities. Police did not find the two people, but they later turned up unharmed in a nearby town.
Although it was a dark and foggy night, the drone, while airborne, was able to provide images depicting the silhouettes of the police searchers who were on the ground, the lieutenant noted.
Newtown police will be seeking FAA waivers to allow its drone to fly in the nighttime and also to fly in Danbury Airport’s and Waterbury-Oxford Airport’s airspace, sections of which extend into Newtown, Lt Kullgren said.
Aviation regulations seek to prevent drones from colliding with manned aircraft by limiting drones to a maximum 400-foot altitude and also by placing a 500-foot minimum altitude on flying manned aircraft, Lt Kullgren said.
Lt Kullgren said he expects that the police department will be using its drone to provide aerial views of fatal motor vehicle accidents and crime scenes.
Police currently are using a DJI-brand Phantom 3 drone and hope to soon obtain a DJI Matrice 200 model, which has extended capabilities, Lt Kullgren said. The Matrice is a larger device that is more rugged, weatherproof, and has thermal imaging.
“The Newtown Police Department’s goal is to lead the way with the use of drones utilizing [such] technology to increase our productivity, “ Lt Kullgren said. The lieutenant said that he and Sgt Seabrook train twice a month to keep current and maintain their FAA drone certifications.
Lt Kullgren said the Matrice 200 drone, which is versatile, could be used to locate missing persons, conduct search and rescue efforts, survey natural disaster sites, aid police with crowd control, provide images for fire pre-planning, and generate aerial views at hazardous materials incidents.
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