Suffolk police are close to buying a pair of drones capable of providing investigators with a bird’s-eye view of crime scenes, car accidents and emergency situations that they say will cut down on traffic tie-ups and save money.
The planned high-tech purchases, the latest in a slew of new technological upgrades for the department, are expected to slash the amount of time roads are closed after an accident or a crime scene, Chief of Department Stuart Cameron said recently.
The drone models being considered, the DJI Phantom 4 and the Inspire 1, would help create a three-dimensional picture of a potential scene, allowing investigators, who currently use laser technology and still images, to create a full, 3-D picture in less time.
The drones, which are expected to cost about $2,000 each, will be purchased with asset forfeiture money, a legal practice that departments have used for a wide range of expenses, including out-of-state conferences and high-tech equipment, Cameron said. They are expected to be deployed soon.
The Phantom 4 flies for about 28 minutes and avoids obstacles automatically, according to the manufacturer’s website. It can travel at up to 44 mph and retails for about $1,200. The Inspire gives live wireless HD video transmission and can travel at up to 49 mph. It costs about $2,000, according to their site.
The Inspire 1 drone is the same used by the Nassau County Police Department, officials said.
The investment is part of what Commissioner Timothy Sini describes as the year of technology. “It’s very important to be on the cutting edge of new technology,” Sini said. “New technology is an opportunity to make the department more effective, more efficient and ultimately save the taxpayer money.”
Nassau police officials have said in the past the department has one drone, which officials said could be useful while assisting officers in tactical situations, such as hostage standoffs; aiding in search and rescue efforts to find missing children; and photographing crime and crash scenes.
If the Suffolk program proves successful, the drone could be deployed for other uses including bomb detection as well as hazmat or other emergency situations, Cameron said. The first step is use at crime and accident scenes, Cameron said.
“Using the old technology, with the laser measuring, we’d have to close the expressway for five hours. We might be able to reduce that closure down to an hour,” Cameron said. “You can imagine all the benefits of that. From all the people living in Suffolk County to increased commerce, reduction of loss of revenue and officer safety.”
Currently, crime scene investigators use laser measuring and land surveying equipment known as Total Station, officials said. They also use photogrammetry software, which uses photos to measure the distance between two objects, officials said. The data are then used to digitally reconstruct a scene, officials said.
Investigators in the crime scene division are testing whether the drones would be compatible with their photogrammetry software, Cameron said. They are also laying the groundwork for the drone pilot program. At least one member on each shift from the crime scene unit will be trained in operating the drone, officials said. Operators will have to apply for a commercial license with the Federal Aviation Administration and then take an exam to get certification, officials said.
The exam will test operators on their knowledge of rules and regulations, such as height restrictions within a 5-mile radius of an airport and map reading.
Part of the evaluation of the drones will be to see how they do in situations like nighttime and inclement weather.
“Hurricanes, heavy winds, you’re not going to be able to use it. Night scenes, you have to have emergency services light up [the area],” said Sgt. William Wallace from the crime scene section.
Arthur Hughes, executive officer of the crime scene section, said the department already has measures in place that would address the issue of darkness.
“If we have a scene that’s really, really dark or we have tire marks that we can’t pick up with normal lighting, we’ll have [emergency services] come and light up the scenes for us,” Hughes said.
“As soon as we get our hands on it [the drone] we’ll get it outside and work out the kinks,” Hughes said.
In addition to execution, each drone will be tested to see how it better fits in with the photogrammetry software that the department already has as part of its arsenal.
Images and videos taken from accident and crime scenes will also have to be tested to see if they will be admissible by prosecutors in the district attorney’s office, Cameron said. Officials with the district attorney’s office declined to comment on the pilot program.
Privacy advocates have long been concerned about law enforcement agencies using drones to infringe on civil liberties.
“Surveillance of all kinds demands meaningful, enforceable privacy protections and the Suffolk Police Department should get a warrant before deploying drones,” said Irma Solic, NYCLU Suffolk County Chapter director. “Drone technology must be used in very narrow circumstances so that it is not used to curb speech or other civil liberties.”
Cameron addressed their concerns by saying the work of the drone is already being done by the aviation squad, including police helicopters.
“We’re looking at things you can see with your eyes so there’s no privacy issue,” Cameron said. “ . . . There’s no intent on spying on anyone, and there’s no expectation of privacy on the roads.”