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An eye in the sky in Niagara


July 1, 2015
By Tom Rataj

1337 words – MR pics: rataj aug folder

An eye in the sky in Niagara

by Tom Rataj

There are significant operational advantages to having a bird’s eye view of on-the-ground operations and scenes for day-to-day policing operations.

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Getting that view from above is still, for the most part, a challenge because of the cost of operating and maintaining any kind of aerial presence — especially the gold standard of police aviation, the helicopter.

While some smaller agencies such as Calgary have managed to do it effectively,the largest municipal police service in Canada, the Toronto Police Service, has been thwarted time and again by its political masters, who often wrongfully view helicopters as toys.

Fixed-wing aircraft are considerably cheaper to purchase or lease and operate than a helicopter but have limited value because they need to keep moving to stay aloft. Both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft also have operational limitations because they have to be flown at a significant altitude and a great distance away from hazards on the ground.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s), often referred to as “drones,” continue to emerge as a viable, although limited option. Unfortunately, there are many negative connotations associated with the term drone, with many people thinking of the military purpose UAV’s operated by the US and other militaries. Armed drones are frequently, and with surprising accuracy, killing suspected adversaries on the ground. The anti-drone crowd also often seems to be stuck on the naive “the state is spying on us” paranoia.

{Niagara Police}

I attended a media event in May held by the Niagara Regional Police Service (NRPS) at its fleet and canine training facility in Thorold, Ontario. The service demonstrated the equipment and discussed its experiences with a UAV Pilot Project, which at the time was about half-way into its one year duration. Despite poor weather and wind gusts up to 65km/h, members were able to fly their UAV for about 20 minutes.

The NRPS is responsible for policing the Regional Municipality of Niagara, which consists of 12 municipalities, including the City of Niagara Falls, and covers 1,854 square kilometers of largely rural agricultural land in southern-Ontario. In addition to touristy Niagara Falls, the region is also famous for its wine and fruit growing industries. The NRPS currently has more than 700 sworn members and 320 civilian staff.

The service has used its popular consumer-grade DJI Phantom 2 Vision Plus UAV since January to give officers a view from above. The standard kit retails for around $1,300 and consists of the four-rotor UAV, a 3-axis, gimbal mounted, 14mp Full-HD (1080p) video and still camera attached to the bottom of the UAV on a stabilising mount, two 5,200 mAh battery packs and a dedicated remote controller. The unit uses standard Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) technology for navigation, and has a simple “return to home” feature to automatically return to its launch location.

The NRPS also purchased a $230 hard-shell case to safely store the complete unit for transportation, and its fleet management team produced and applied a professional fleet decal package to the machine to give it the standard look of the service.

{Project proposal}

Det/Cst. Jeff Inch of the NRPS Forensic Service Unit (FSU), who has experience as a remote-control aircraft operator, originally proposed the UAV project about four years ago when he was a member of the Collision Reconstruction Unit. At that time the technology was not mature enough, or even affordable, costing upwards of $50,000.

In the autumn of 2014 he submitted a new proposal to buy a UAV for limited and specialised policing operations, including his FSU team, where the UAV would be used for getting an aerial view of crime scenes. He compared four different UAV brands and models prior to recommending the DJI Phantom 2 Vision Plus for the pilot project.

Additional business case justifications included in his proposal were serious collisions and traffic fatality scenes, missing-persons searches and any other cases where an aerial view could be useful.

The project proposal was accepted and the one-year pilot project began at the beginning of this year. Inch was made the lead pilot. In addition to his experience with remote-controlled aircraft he has also completed aviation ground school and has a radio operator’s licence, making him well-suited as the project lead.

As part of the demonstration project he is also training five officers to operate the UAV. Det/Cst. Mike McNeil is the primary observer during the pilot project and worked as the observer during the media event.

{Rules and procedures}

Standard operating procedure (SOP), mandated by Transport Canada, always consists of a two officer team – the pilot and an observer. Observers are always UAV pilots-in-training so the role actually serves two purposes at the same time.

The UAV is operated only in a line-of-sight mode and always remains within about 250m of the operator and observer. The standard battery pack allows for about 25-minutes of flying time, although they typically only fly for about 20 minutes per mission as a safety measure.

The observer officer uses an Apple iPad to get a live view of the HD video camera feed and to control the operation of the camera. The connection between the iPad and UAV uses WiFi and has a range of up to 300m. The DJI Phantom app is compatible with iPhone 4 or later, newer model iPads and Android phones such as the Samsung S3 or Note 2 or similarly or better featured models.

The standard HD camera records video and still images onto an SDHC solid-state memory card which is typically offloaded after a flight. Video and still images can also be wirelessly accessed through the iPad or Android applications for immediate use and operational needs while the UAV is airborne.

Because the NRPS is considered a commercial operator by Transport Canada rules, it must comply with the “Standing Special Flight Operation Certificate”, which permits them to operate the UAV only within the Niagara Region. The certificate, which took about six months to obtain, also imposes a number of other restrictions. Check out: http://www.tc.gc.ca for more information about UAV flight rules and regulations and the permits which may be required.

{Experience}

During the first half-year of operation, the UAV has been used at a number of serious collision scenes, sudden deaths, missing person searches, a coroner’s inquest and a homicide investigation.

One unique location within the Niagara Region where the UAV can be advantageous is within the rugged Niagara Gorge, which is as deep as 365m (1,200′) in some areas. There are a number of hiking trails and paths and access points that can be quite treacherous, especially in poor weather conditions and when being explored by inexperienced “tourist” hikers from around the world.

Each year there are a number of gorge rescues that need to be undertaken where an inexperienced hiker gets stranded or injured somewhere in the gorge. Finding the exact location and predicament of the hiker is often complex and time consuming because they often cannot be seen from above.

With the UAV, a team can be dispatched to the approximate location of the hiker and the UAV flown down into the gorge to locate them. Since live video footage and still images can be seen from above the teams can make far more accurate and timely decisions on how to affect the rescue

{An option for small budgets}

This pilot project demonstrates that even small police services can take advantage of an aerial view for a wide variety of operational uses without spending millions of dollars to acquire the typical helicopter or fixed wing aircraft.

While small and affordable UAV’s such as the DJI Phantom have quite a few operational limitations in terms of range and flight time, they can be very useful for many smaller-scale day-to-day operations. Larger UAV’s with greater range and features are also available, depending on needs and budget.

BIO

Contact Inch at 9928@nrps.on.ca for more information on this project.