Lansing — The Michigan State Police could become the first police agency in the nation with statewide authorization to deploy an aerial drone to photograph vehicle crash scenes and give a bird's-eye view of other emergency situations.
The agency hopes to get permission next month from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly a $158,000 remote-controlled tiny helicopter that state police pilots have been training to use for more than a year.
State police officials say the drone should reduce the time required to survey and reconstruct major crash scenes like the 193-vehicle pileup that shut down a section of Interstate 94 between Kalamazoo and Battle Creek earlier this month.
"That would have been so useful," said Col. Kriste Kibbey Etue, commander of the Michigan State Police.
It took two days to reopen the highway after the pileup, in part because crash investigators had to take detailed measurements and photos of the scene before they could begin clearing the wreckage of passenger vehicles and commercial trucks, Etue said. Ontario Provincial Police reports up to an 87 percent reduction in the time for its drones to photograph and reconstruct crash areas.
The Aeryon SkyRanger unmanned aerial vehicle takes hundreds of overlapping photos that a computer program stitches together to create a three-dimensional map of a crash, helping investigators reconstruct how vehicle pileups occur, said 1st Lt. Chris Bush.
"I personally think it's going to change how we do law enforcement," said Bush, commander of field support and aviation at the Michigan State Police. "The quicker we can get accidents cleared, to me that's a gamechanger for how we do law enforcement."
The FAA has only granted licenses to fly unmanned aerial vehicles to a handful of municipal police agencies across the country. FAA officials are coming to Lansing next month to make a final review of the state police's training and drone use policies, Bush said.
If approved, the Michigan State Police would become the first agency with permission to deploy its drone anywhere in a state — with some prohibitions, such as flying near airports, Bush said.
The drone, which fits inside a backpack, is limited to flying a maximum altitude of 400 feet, and operators must be able to maintain eyesight of the device, Bush said.
Aeryon Labs Inc., the Waterloo, Ontario-based maker of the SkyRanger and Scout models, has seen increased interest in its quad-rotor drones from police agencies across North America, company spokeswoman Andrea Sangster said.
The on-board cameras can take photographs and record video simultaneously and include infrared imaging for limited nighttime use, Sangster said.
Mindful of the negative image drones have created for some citizens, the Michigan State Police had the American Civil Liberties Union's Michigan chapter review its policies for operating its drone, Bush said.
"We have no qualms really with the state police," said Shelli Weisberg, legislative affairs director for the ACLU of Michigan. "We understand it's a good tool for them to use for accident reconstruction."
Time saved at crashes
When the drone is deployed at crash scenes, Michigan drivers will likely see shorter delays, said Sgt. Brad Muir, head of the Ontario Provincial Police's unmanned aerial vehicle program.
Ontario Provincial Police have been operating two Aeryon Scout drones in the metropolitan Toronto area for two years. The time it takes to photograph and reconstruct a highway crash drop from two hours to as short as 15 minutes, Muir said.
"It saves us a fair amount of time with boots on the ground," he said.
The drone is more accurate than ground-level photos and measurements taken by traffic crash investigators, Muir said.
"Anything we might have missed that we didn't measure, we can go back and pick it up," he said. "The UAV doesn't pick and choose what it takes the pictures of."
Ontario Provincial Police have a third drone investigators use for surveying outdoor homicide scenes and for other forensic purposes, Muir said.
The Ontario agency plans to add unmanned aerial vehicles in the coming years, including stationing one with its highway patrol unit in southwestern Ontario to assist with traffic crashes along Ontario Highway 401, Canada's busiest east-west shipping route connected to the Detroit-Windsor international crossing, he said.
Ontario police use Aeryon's Scout model, which is smaller than the SkyRanger model the Michigan State Police purchased with a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
"Our plan is to roll out a few more of these," Muir said.
Michigan State Police officials envision some day having multiple drones stationed around the state for emergency response. But the agency initially will start with one based out of MSP's aviation unit at the Lansing airport, Bush said.
"We're not sure where it's going to take us," Bush said.
Photos help with decision making
Montgomery County, Texas, north of Houston, was one of the first U.S. municipalities to get FAA approval to operate a drone in 2010.
Randy McDaniel, chief deputy sheriff of the Montgomery County, said his agency has used its drone to photograph traffic crashes and hazardous waste spills, and scout out fires and traffic jams caused by Gulf Coast hurricane evacuations.
"Any critical incident giving the on-site commander a bird's-eye view ... it's just a better opportunity for decision making," he said.
McDaniel said his agency has seen little backlash from residents about the police drone.
"It's been proven that it's not the monster that some would have you believe," McDaniel said.
But like small airplanes, the tiny aerial vehicles are prone to mishaps and limitations.
Last year, Montgomery County's first drone crashed into a lake during a training exercise when one of the main rotor blades sheered off, McDaniel said.
Aeryon's SkyRanger, which Montgomery County now owns, is limited to flying in winds of 40 miles per hour, but can handle gusts of up to 55 miles per hour, Bush said.
The drones can only handle light precipitation, Muir said.
"If the winds get too high and the snow gets too thick, it does have some limitations," he said.