The Idaho State Police trooper in charge of a burgeoning drone program is touring the state to educate the public about how the agency is using the technology.
“The whole purpose is to get out in front of it and put people at ease,” Capt. John Ganske said Wednesday during a stop at ISP Region 2 headquarters in Lewiston. “We’re not out there peeking in windows. We just want to assure people that we’re administering the program properly.”
Lt. Allen Oswald said the year-old program has mainly been used to investigate traffic accidents. For example, he used a drone last week to survey the scene of a fatal crash in which a vehicle left the Old Spiral Highway and tumbled more than 1,000 feet down the Lewiston Hill.
The drone was able to shoot clear video that showed the path the vehicle took down the hill. It would have taken several officers many hours to do that on foot, he said.
“We’re able to document a scene quicker and clear it quicker,” Oswald said.
That’s a plus for officer safety, since they don’t have to spend as much time standing on a roadway while they work a scene, and a plus for public safety when traffic can return to normal more quickly, he said.
In addition to surveying and clearing accident scenes, ISP has been using drones for crime scene investigations; surveillance of suspected criminal activity; search-and-rescue operations; hazardous materials investigations; and for lending support to other agencies.
“The applications are virtually endless,” Oswald said.
Region 2 Capt. Lonnie Richardson said drones are subject to all the rules of evidence gathering that ISP already follows, like obtaining a search warrant before deployment in a criminal investigation. And the video gathered is treated with the same strict handling procedures as any other evidence.
The Federal Aviation Administration regulates the agency just like a commercial drone operator, subjecting it to the same rules. Troopers have to earn an FAA license, for instance, and have to maintain line-of-sight contact with their drone and not exceed a 400-foot flight ceiling.
Ganske brought his DJI Phantom 4 Quadcopter from Boise to the demonstration. Three local troopers who are FAA-certified flew other, smaller models. The stiff wind that swept through the region Wednesday was no match for the drones, which use complex software and gyroscopic guidance to achieve stable flight, even in adverse conditions.
The aircraft weigh just a few pounds each and sport four horizontal rotors at their corners that emit a high-pitched whine as they come up to speed. Each operator carries a controller with a video screen that shows a live feed of what the drone camera sees.
When a flight is complete, Ganske said a data storage card can be removed to transfer the footage to a computer. Evidence gathered since the drone program began is being used in several active cases, and he anticipated that it could help achieve successful outcomes for ISP.
Drones also could be used to avoid dangerous pursuits when a suspect decides to flee from officers. State police already follow a protocol that requires them to weigh the safety of the public against the benefit of catching a suspect, but drones could make the decision to call off a pursuit much easier.
And drones are far cheaper and safer than using traditional aircraft with a person on board, Ganske added. When they first were purchased with funding left over at the end of the last fiscal year, Ganske said a Phantom 4 with all the accessories cost about $6,000. But prices have plummeted as the technology becomes more common, he said, and the same outfit could cost about a third of that amount today.
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