Police Drones Aid in Local Law Enforcement Work

But Thermal Imaging Has Not Yet Located Missing Nursing Home Resident in Manahawkin
By VICTORIA FORD | Nov 07, 2018
Photo by: Ryan Morrill

Both Stafford and Long Beach Township police departments purchased industrial-grade drones this year, and already they have proven helpful in locating missing persons and in other law enforcement applications.

This weekend, in particular, has had local police drones busy searching for one Bu Quach, the 65-year-old resident of Manahawkin Nursing and Rehabilitation who went missing from the facility Friday morning.

Stafford’s Traffic Safety Officer and licensed drone pilot, Ptl. Justin Pascale, happened to be on duty when the call was received last Friday. While another officer began to collect information, Pascale right away started to set up the department’s DJI Matrice 200 series drone in preparation to send it up over the woods behind the nursing home. Weather conditions definitely were not favorable, he said, but when a person’s life is at stake, it’s an easy call to make. Using the thermal imager, he scoured the area from the air.

He requested Long Beach Township’s assistance, as often the two departments work together to cover an even greater area in half the time. By the time a sighting of the man near Ocean Acres was reported, it was pouring rain and impossible for the drones to fly. The following day, Saturday, it was too windy. Sunday, once the entire town had been laid out as a grid for search purposes, Pascale was once again called in, this time to cover the acreage out by Stafford Park Shopping Center and Apartments.

As of Tuesday, with only one viable lead and time running out as search parties on foot continued working, Pascale said, “We’re hoping for the best.” But Quach has dementia, post-traumatic stress disorder, Parkinson’s and diabetes. With temperatures having dropped down to freezing Saturday night and presumably no access to insulin or other medications, his chances are not promising.

As Pascale explained during a recent demonstration, the drones are for use in investigations and other police work – not for routine patrols, and not for surveillance.

“That’s not what it’s for, and never will be,” according to Pascale.

Even as technology advances, warrant requirements remain the same, he said. Along the same lines, the drones are not for use with weapons of any kind, nor for random patrol. The only reason a drone goes up is on a law enforcement mission or a training exercise.

Given the noisy motors on them, Pascale added, “You’re not sneaking up on anybody with this.”

The drones’ primary use is to aid in crash investigation, which is Pascale’s specialty. Photogrammetry, the science of extracting measurements from photographs, has helped him increase the efficiency of mapping and cleaning up the scene of a collision, he explained. At the scene, his priorities are closing roads quickly, minimizing interference with traffic flow, and ensuring officer safety. Crash reconstruction is made easier.

The types of crashes that would warrant use of the drone would be serious, criminal, fatal crashes. As an example of a time when the drone helped a lot, Pascale recalled the five-vehicle fatal crash at Marsha Drive this summer, that was cleared in an hour and a half, instead of four to five hours, as it might have done in the past.

The larger of Stafford’s two drones, the Matrice, is the top of the line for the manufacturer’s Enterprise editions; is water-resistant, dust-proof and made for industrial applications; can withstand extreme cold and heat (from 4 degrees below zero, to 104 degrees Fahrenheit, according to factory recommendations); has a FLIR thermal imaging infrared camera for capturing heat signatures and lume cubes to aid in night flights. It has fixed landing gear and a battery life of 22 minutes. An iPad or tablet attaches to the controller to give a first-person view.

The cost of the drone itself is thousands, according to Pascale, and the FLIR camera easily costs more than the drone body; blades, batteries and other accoutrements are sold separately.

LBT has the same setup, Pascale said; Brick has a smaller one; Lakewood has one, too; and the Sherriff’s Department has a fleet. But Stafford is the only department using it for crash mapping.

The drones are meant for engineers’ surveying work – a big advancement over the old laser and survey pole, he said.

Search and rescue is another application. Case in point, two incidents arose earlier this year where the drones have proven extremely useful. In one, a young man with cognitive delays wandered away from his home and was located walking north along the Parkway. In another, on an assist with Long Beach Township, the drone was deployed to help look for a missing man with a head injury in Barnegat Light.

In both cases, the K-9 unit had lost the track due to bad weather. The drones’ efficiency lies in their ability to cover a lot more ground than the dogs in a lot less time. To be able to scan that amount of acreage saves a tremendous amount of manpower, Pascale said.

The department’s smaller drone, a Mavic Pro, can be deployed in two minutes or less and is handy for close-range operations and intel gathering during SWAT missions, such as getting eyes on a barricaded subject. It’s a model commonly enjoyed for personal use.

The technology is still up and coming, and police departments are still exploring the possibilities, Pascale said. Drones can be used in conjunction with the fire company; help the water and sewer department conduct tower inspections; and document flooding and compare aerial photos over time.

To demonstrate, Pascale showed how he had sent the drone up to take 62 aerial images of town hall, then stitched them together and laid them directly over a Google Earth image to create before and after images. The pictures he takes can be locked into coordinates, creating a geo-referenced map.

Just please don’t call these drones “toys.” The police hate that.

“It’s not a toy; it’s an important tool, used responsibly,” Pascale said.

Given all the regulations imposed and maintenance logs that must be kept, Pascale likens having a police drone to “running a mini airline,” complete with standard pre-flight checks, monthly reports that get submitted to the FAA, and a binder full of emergency procedures Operators must pass exams and regularly recertify.

To operate the drone for law enforcement missions, the township has a public COA (certificate of authorization) in addition to the individual pilots’ Part 107 certification. Pascale is Stafford’s primary operator of the drones. Long Beach Township’s drone operator is Neil Rojas.

Given Stafford PD’s proximity to the hospital, Eagles Nest Airport and the Warren Grove Gunnery Range, requests to the FAA to clear airspace are required.

Though technically the drones can fly up to a radius of 4 miles, legally they are not to leave the pilot’s line of sight. Likewise, while the machines are capable of flying at much higher elevations, the legal ceiling is 400 feet. The DJI software won’t allow drones to exceed regulation limits.

Pascale is optimistic about the future of such technological advancements in law enforcement.

“I look forward to what they’re trying to do with it,” he said. “There’s a whole world of capabilities outside of just taking pictures with it.”

victoria@thesandpaper.net

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