Eyes in the Sky
It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s … a flying camera.
For Mounties, it’s actually a super-tool, better known as an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).
Many would call it a drone, but to Cpl. Barry Red Iron, the first Mountie in Alberta trained to use the flying contraption for police work, that’s a misleading name.
“We don’t call them drones, people have this misconception with a drone,” said Red Iron, a forensic collision reconstructionist and manager of the traffic services UAV program in Alberta.
“Drones are basically like predators and that’s the opinion that people get of these and we’re definitely not there and we’re a long way from ever being somewhere close to something like that.”
Privacy rules make sure of that.
“People think that these things fly for days and hours on end and that they’re spying on people and that’s not the case, they’re not designed or built that way, the ones that we use,” he said.
“And Transport Canada mandates that quite thoroughly, that we’re not allowed to fly outside of our line of sight and we’re not to be spying.”
The privacy commissioner is very clear, he added.
“At a collision scene, it’s on a public highway so we don’t have privacy issues doing that, but if I need to fly over Joe Farmer’s field over there, I must have his permission to be able to do that.”
Collision scenes – that is where Alberta’s UAVs spend the majority of their time.
Take, for example, the massive pileup on the QEII March 6 that took one man’s life and sent several other people to hospital.
It was estimated as many as 30 vehicles made up at least two crash scenes between Didsbury and Carstairs.
Cpl. Donavan Gulak, a collision reconstructionist based out of Red Deer, operated a UAV above the scenes.
“When you have so many vehicles, it makes it easier to understand,” said Gulak.
“Quite often, we can see more from the air than we would on the ground.”
Red Iron said having a bird’s eye view at a crash scene is key.
“Even flying up 20 metres gives you a complete different perspective,” he said of evidence like tire tracks or debris.
He said he’s heard great feedback about the UAV pictures from lawyers, engineers and insurance adjusters.
When a UAV is at its highest in the air, it gives officers images showing approximately 100 metres of highway in length and roughly 30 metres on either side of the road, said Red Iron.
“That gives us a good perspective of a collision scene, which is generally contained in that area,” he said.
The UAVs are used for more than just aerial views of crash sites, though.
Red Iron said the RCMP also has the ability to fly them for basic search and rescue operations, to help out the emergency response teams in life or death situations, and for major crime or homicide scenes.
On Jan. 12, 2013, two men suspected of a crime spree beginning in Calgary wound up on the roof of the Toad `n’ Turtle Pub in Airdire as they were fleeing police.
Cpl. Dean Portz, an RCMP collision reconstructionist based in Calgary, was called in with a UAV, which flew up to the roof of the bar.
“We were able to see more than you could see by putting a person there and putting them at risk if (the suspects) were armed,” he said.
The suspects were apprehended and Portz credits the UAV with making the situation safer for police.
“It’s definitely an officer safety tool,” he said.
It’s also proved to be an effective in public safety,
In the early morning hours of May 9, 2013, RCMP Cpl. Doug Green, a forensic collision reconstructionist stationed in Saskatoon, was called out to a highway east of the city, where emergency crews were at the site of a single-vehicle collision.
There was no one in or around the Ford Focus in the ditch, but there was evidence someone had been hurt in the crash, said Green.
Police managed to get the driver’s cell phone number and he picked up when they called, said Green.
“He said yes he’d been involved in a crash, he had a head injury and he didn’t know where he was,” said Green.
The 25-year-old man was without shoes and a coat in the sub-zero temperatures.
Though first responders lost contact with the man, his cell phone provider gave them GPS coordinates of his approximate location.
Using a thermal sensor on the UAV, Green spotted three warm spots and directed a crew of firefighters to the nearest one, where they found the man suffering from hypothermia more than three kilometres from the crash scene.
He was taken to hospital in Saskatoon.
In January, Green and a colleague were flown to New York so he could tell the rescue tale on Katie Couric’s talk show.
UAVs have been used by Alberta Mounties since late 2011.
There are 10 of them split between Calgary, Edmonton, Lethbridge, Red Deer, Westlock, Peace River, St. Paul and Fort McMurray.
The units, collectively dubbed `The Chaos Squad’ and custom-made for the RCMP by Chaos Choppers in Swift Current, Sask., cost approximately $18,000 to $20,000 each.
Officers can get about 10-20 minutes of flight time when a UAV runs off a single battery, said Red Iron.
Doubling up on batteries can offer about 30 minutes of flight time.
Typically, that’s more than enough – the average flight time at a collision scene is six to 10 minutes, said Red Iron.
The Calgary Police Service has tested UAVs, but due to restrictions about flying them over built-up areas, Calgary’s propensity for windy weather, the UAVs’ limited air time and stability issues, they’re not used by the city’s police force and won’t be in the foreseeable future, said spokesman Kevin Brookwell.
RCMP can fly their UAVs as high as 500 feet (152.4 metres) during the day and 175 feet (53.34 metres) at night, said Red Iron.
“Once it’s up that high, you don’t have the depth perception, so you’re not able to maintain that visual contact,” he said of flying in the dark.
“Visual contact with the UAV at all times is of paramount importance under the SFOC, which is the Special Flight Operations Certificate that we fly under.”
UAVs are also required to abide by about two dozen other rules put in place by the federal government.
“Even though we’re the police, we are mandated by Transport Canada because … if an airplane hit one of these UAVs, it could be catastrophic,” said Red Iron.
“We can’t fly within seven nautical miles of the international airport unless we notify the control tower to say, `Hey, we would like to fly in your air space, we’re going to fly at this height, is that O.K.?’ and they will say yes or no.
“They may regulate us to 150 feet or 100 feet because they do have airplanes that travel over top of us.”
The rules are fair and easy enough to abide by, he said.
“We’re playing in their sandbox … so we play by their rules.”
If there’s growth for Alberta’s UAV program down the road, Red Iron hopes for more extensive search and rescue capabilities, though it will be some time before that’s possible.
“If we have the ability to take a small fixed wing aircraft and throw it in the sky and find that child that wandered away from the campground in Kananaskis Country and find her within two hours as opposed to not finding her for another day, that’s invaluable, you cant put a price on that, really you can’t,” he said.