State police gets OK to use drones in investigations

Tom Greenwood
The Detroit News

The Michigan State Police aviation unit has grown by one.

On Monday, the state police said it received authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration on Feb. 25 to fly an unmanned aircraft system or drone to support public safety efforts. The state police was given permission to fly its Aeryon SkyRanger as well as provide drone services for other police agencies in the state.

This makes the state police 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 FAA has granted licenses to fly unmanned aerial vehicles only to a handful of municipal police agencies across the country.

The drone is expected to 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 in January.

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, said Col. Kriste Kibbey Etue, commander of the Michigan State Police. Ontario Provincial Police reports up to an 87 percent reduction in the time for its drones to photograph and reconstruct crash areas.

On March 3, the Michigan State Police drone was flown over a fire investigation near Jenison, collecting both video and photographs of the structure to help investigators determine the origin and cause of the fire.

The video and photos revealed hotspots, helping firefighters figure out where the fire was still smoldering, said 1st Lt. Chris Bush, commander of field support and aviation at the Michigan State Police.

“In the future, you can fly it over that and relay (that information) to the fire department,” Bush told The Detroit News on Monday.

The State Police aviation unit, which has use of two helicopters and one fixed wing aircraft, first purchased an Aeryon SkyRanger for $158,000 in September 2013 based on its high evaluations for safety, capability and reliability. It was purchased with a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The state police and the FAA have since worked together to meet all safety and training requirements, as well as to develop police and procedures for the use of the equipment.

The state police and FAA have established strict polices regarding the operation of the drone, including:

■ The drone must always be flown by a two-person crew, with one acting as the pilot and the other as a safety observer.

■ The pilot must be FAA certified.

■ The unmanned aircraft system must remain below 400 feet and always be within line of sight of the crew.

■ It can’t be flown near airports.

Drones also have natural limitations. They can only handle light rain. And the Aeryon SkyRanger is limited to flying in winds of 40 mph, but can handle gusts of up to 55 mph, Bush said.

Michigan State Police officials envision eventually having multiple drones stationed around the state for emergency response. But the first drone will be located at the Lansing airport.

“We’re not sure where it's going to take us,” Bush said.


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Staff Writer Chad Livengood contributed.