Troopers put eyes in the skies — with drones


VERMONT STATE POLICE Trooper Thomas Howard takes the controls of one of the Vermont State Police’s 11 drones that will be used primarily to chronicle accident scenes and search for missing persons. Independent photo/Steve James

THIS DRONE UNVEILED at the Vermont State Police barracks in New Haven last week is one of 11 that VSP began deploying in October at accident and search scenes statewide. The drones can carry cameras, a lighting system and a speaker. Independent photo/Steve James

A DRONE TAKES flight over the Vermont State Police barracks in New Haven last week. Independent photo/Steve James
“hese drones … could be used for criminal investigations or surveillance, but we would have to apply for a warrant before we do so. — Lt. Cory Lozier

NEW HAVEN — Vermont State Police have some new eyes in the sky when they chronicle an accident scene or look for a missing person in a remote location.

But those eyes aren’t human.

They belong to a group of 11 unmanned aircraft systems — think “drones” — that will be deployed as needed throughout the state under the guidance of specially trained VSP teams. The units, which are battery powered and controlled through a console much like what one uses with a video gaming system, have the ability to hover for extended periods of time over targets, all the while taking photos that are then electronically stitched together to give authorities a panoramic depiction of a scene.

State police received a federal grant to pay the $105,000 cost of the drones and another $15,000 to train the personnel who will use them. The units will be spread throughout the state for quick access in the event of major accidents or cases of missing persons.

The new technology, explained VSP Trooper and drone pilot Thomas Howard, now allows investigators to record an accident site in around a half hour. It’s a job that until recently could take police upwards of three hours to complete, requiring the deployment of ladders, hand-held cameras and other equipment. And state police officials don’t have to risk their personal safety recording images themselves in a busy roadway.

“It’s taken us leaps and bounds in the right direction,” Howard told the media assembled for a drone demonstration at the VSP’s New Haven barracks this past Wednesday. “Not only are we capturing more information that we can use, but it is making this job safer. It was only a short time ago we were all at a crash in Richmond in which two of my colleagues were almost struck as a result of a secondary crash. So as opposed to having to stand out in the travel lane with a prism pole to take measurements, we can now stay in a safe location.”

The current fleet consists of eight Mavic drones and three larger Matrice units. They carry a multipurpose camera, thermal camera, lighting and a speaker system.

If one of the drones enters restricted airspace, it must stop what it’s doing and return back to base.

Imagine a situation where a person has lost his or her way in the Green Mountains on a cold, dark night. Precious minutes are ticking by as state and local authorities gather a search party and police dog(s). But now, VSP have the potential to locate the missing person more quickly with a drone, which can detect body heat, throw light and even communicate (through the device’s handlers) with the stranded person.

The drones will also be useful in water-based search-and-rescue cases, according to Lt. Cory Lozier, commander of the VSP’s emergency services unit and leader of its drone program.

State police acknowledged the drones could intentionally or unintentionally pick up footage of people engaged in criminal activity. But they said they’ll adhere to an internal policy and legislative guidelines that they said will ensure Vermonters’ privacy.

“These drones will not be used for any warrantless searches, unless we apply for a warrant,” Lozier said. “They could be used for criminal investigations or surveillance, but we would have to apply for a warrant before we do so.

“If we’re up on another mission and we capture something criminal going on, the correct practice would be to stop what we’re doing and apply for a warrant,” he added. “We would already have the footage, but we have it in policy we have 48 hours to apply for a warrant to use the media we’ve already captured.”

Howard led the media outside to demonstrate one of the Mavic machines. He gave the drone a few commands through the console and its propellers began spinning furiously on its makeshift launch/landing pad. It then gradually took flight, zipping around 40 meters into the air as it sized up a faux accident scene that VSP had staged around 30 feet away. The machine then descended and hovered around the designated site, silently clicking photos that Howard downloaded into a computer inside the barracks.

Presto — high-definition images of an accident scene.

“We’re looking to get a few more as the program is already showing we’re going to be using (drones) on a weekly basis,” Lozier said.

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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