Edmonton police fly drone to get bird’s-eye view of major collision scenes



Edmonton police say their new flying camera helps investigate serious traffic crashes by giving them a bird’s-eye view of the scene.

“In front of us today is the newest tool in our tool belt as far as collision reconstruction goes,” Const. Binoy Prabhu, of the Edmonton police major collision investigation unit, said Tuesday as the service unveiled its $27,000 unmanned aerial vehicle or UAV, a custom-built version of the miniature aircraft available to hobbyists. The drone has been flown at more than 15 major crash investigations since last June, when police received an operations certificate from Transport Canada.

The six-rotor, carbon-fibre and aluminum, battery-operated UAV, built by Chaos Helicopters of Swift Current, uses GPS positioning to keep it stable and carries a payload of a remote-controlled digital SLR camera, a search light, a forward-looking infrared camera and a flight data recorder. It can remain aloft for about 12 minutes and can be controlled from 610 metres away.

Edmonton police decided in January 2014 it needed an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to give officers an aerial perspective of serious traffic accidents. Alberta RCMP have been using UAVs since late 2011, with 10 across the province.

“What’s been sorely missed all this time has been the ability to present an overall picture of certain bits of data that could not be communicated, however eloquent one could be,” said Prabhu, adding police previously relied on scale drawings and maps to tell the story of crashes.

“What this effectively does is, it transcends all language barriers by providing a picture to communicate the nature of what we have on the scene.”

From its operational altitude of slightly more than 91 metres up, the machine lets officers see evidence such as tire tracks and far-flung debris that they might miss standing on the ground. Prabhu gives the example of a fatal crash in June when a man rolled his SUV off an off-ramp on the Anthony Henday Drive onto Yellowhead Trail.

“Using the UAV, we were able to actually bring in an overall picture of all the pre-impact evidence that was able to help us corroborate issues that were later brought to the surface from the post-mortem, with it being a medical issue that initiated the whole collision.”

The UAV also proved useful in an October investigation into a single-vehicle crash that led to the traffic unit laying its first manslaughter charge related to a traffic death. “Again, this aerial imagery was able to put into perspective that this just wasn’t a one-off loss of control and entering into a collision,” Prabhu said.

A woman was killed after the 1990 Corvette in which she was travelling lost control on Yellowhead Trail and rolled underneath the Victoria Trail overpass. The driver was seriously injuries but has recovered.

Excessive speed and alcohol are believed to have been factors in the crash.

“It was able to properly document the kind of driving action in place much prior to that collision taking place. It actually showed consistency and the flow of how this all came to be.”

Police must follow Transport Canada regulations when flying the drone. Operators must have permits and pilot training. Flight plans need to be filed to notify other pilots flying in the area. The traffic section now has three officers qualified to operate the UAV and four others in training. Prabhu said the police would like to have more than one operational unit, but didn’t say how many.

It takes two officers, a pilot and spotter, to operate the machine, which must be kept in sight at all times.

Used currently just for reconstructing collisions, Prabhu acknowledged there are other ways police could use the UAV, such as for crime scene investigations, but he stressed it would not replace a police helicopter in developing situations.

“If you’re referring to dynamic calls, thankfully we have tactical flight operations that is able to operate in those condition where this would really be of no use,” he said.

An eye in the sky could raise privacy concerns, but Prabhu said strict controls are in place on the UAV’s use. “The Edmonton Police Service, like any police service, is accountable to the community it serves,” he said.