This week, Vermont State Police demonstrated two of their new “Unmanned Aircraft Systems” — which most people refer to as drones. The state bought 11 of the aircraft to be used in accident reconstruction and search and rescue missions.
Outside the New Haven barracks, Trooper Thomas Howard prepares to put one of the smaller drones into the air. “So the first thing that I’m going to do is now that everything’s set up the controller’s talking to the aircraft I’m going to go ahead and turn the props on. Next thing that we want to do is you want to make sure that it’s operating safely. We want to make sure that it’s doing exactly what we want it to do so.”
After the pre-flight check, Trooper Howard shows what will happen during an accident reconstruction mission. “I made a mock collision scene for us. We hit start. All green check marks is a good sign and we’ll go ahead and start the mission.”
Howard: “So to get the appropriate amount of resolution for the photographs we fly to the desired designated height. Then it already knows where it needs to take its photographs so it’s going to fly to that area next. And it’s cool that you can look at this display and it actually shows you where the aircraft is. It shows you how many photographs have been taken. It told me that we’re going to map a scene that’s 38 by 27 meters and the flight time’s going to be 2 minutes and 42 seconds. So that noise says it’s finished its mission.”
Reporter: “It’s quiet.”
Howard: “Yeah, yeah you barely even know it’s there. Beeping’s stopped and the mission’s finished.”
Later Emergency Services Unit Sgt Matthew Sweitzer flys the larger drone. He explains the different capabilities it has and how it can be used for different missions. “State Police Search and Rescue.”
Sweitzer’s voice from drone: “State Police Search and Rescue.”
Sweitzer: “So we can communicate one way with people and let them know that we see them. But then it also has a thermal mode. So obviously like for search and rescue that’s really beneficial for us because we can see heat signatures so if someone’s in the woods you know most of the things are pretty cold. And like I was saying before you can also put on the spotlight or this one also has a strobe light built into it so that we can have a strobe that points down while we’re flying at nighttime.”
UAS Program Commander Lt. Cory Lozier says the drones will be primarily used for search and rescue and crash reconstruction. “They can be used to get overall views of crime scenes. We’re more leaning utilizing the drones for accident and crash reconstruction and search and rescue missions. Basically due to the technology that we have we can now get images that we have never had before. We can different angles, different elevation and the drones that we are using it can reduce time on scene.”
Lozier says there are policies and guidelines in place to address privacy concerns. “These drones will not be used for any warrantless searches. So they could be used for criminal investigations or surveillance but we would have to apply for a warrant before we do so. If we’re up on another mission and we capture something criminal going on the correct practice would be to stop what we’re doing and apply for a warrant. We would already have the footage but we do have it in policy and in the Legislature that we have 48 hours to apply for a warrant to use the media that we’ve already captured. We will not fly over somebody unless it’s a public safety risk or if we’re trying to save lives. We are very aware of the privacy issues. On a public road we’re okay. Anything private we are going to have to apply for warrants before we deploy our drones.”
Thirteen Vermont State Police pilots have received training and been certified by the FAA to operate the drones. Homeland Security, Highway Safety and other federal grants were used to fund acquisition of 11 drones, 3 large and 8 smaller, at a cost of $105 thousand and another $15 thousand for training.
They will be stationed at locations across Vermont