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Eye in the sky
When it comes to investigating automobile crashes, the sky’s the limit for the Kelowna RCMP.
The police here now use a small remote-controlled flying drone, equipped with a digital camera, that not only provides investigators with a high-definition bird’s eye view of the crash scene, it also cuts the time it takes to collect visual evidence allowing the police to open roads more quickly after an accident.
Where it used to take a few hours to take photos from ground level, the aerial digital photographs can now be taken from several different angles overhead in a matter of minutes. And the pictures encompass the entire scene.
The information collected on those photographs can be analyzed by special computer software capable of ultimately recreating an animated sequence showing just what happened—all from a myriad of identified points on each picture.
“It’s one more tool we have at our disposal,” says Sgt. Brian Nightingale, head of Integrated Collision Analysis Reconstruction Services (ICARS) with the RCMP’s South-East District.
Nightingale, along with two other pilots, one based in Vernon and one based in Penticton, fly the drone, known as an unmanned aerial vehicle or UAV.
There are several other officers in the regional ICARS unit as well.
The teams respond to requests for assistance from the RCMP detachment in whose jurisdiction a crash occurs.
And according to Nightingale, they are kept busy, especially during the summer months in the Okanagan.
With more traffic on the roads, especially in the more populated parts of the region, there are more serious crashes at this time of year that need to be investigated, he says.
The information Nightingale’s team collects is often used in court to explain just what happened. But unlike the past, when officers from ICARS would have to explain in words and by using charts how a crash occurred, now they can point to an animated video, showing not only what happened but other critical information such as speed, braking, skid marks and different viewing angles of the crash.
“Judges love this because they can see it for themselves or give it to a jury to look at,” says Nightingale.
The UAV that the police use is made in Saskatchewan and costs about $20,000. It’s small—about two feet long—and made of carbon fibre so its light.
It has four propellers as well as an underside gimble that holds the camera steady during flight.
Cpl. Justin Maetche is the Vernon pilot. Given Vernon’s central location in the sprawling south-east division—which covers an area from Blue River in the north to the Canada-U.S. border in the south—Maetche has the UAV stationed with him regularly.
Maetche, who unlike Nightingale, grew up playing video games, found his aptitude perfect for flying the UAV.
In fact, as part of the collision reconstruction team, RCMP officers who have a physics or technical backgrounds are sought out and asked to join.
“We work behind the scenes but it is very technical,” says Nightingale.
In addition to crash reconstruction information gathering and analysis, the UAV is also used to assist the regional emergency response team.
In one case, it was used to provide information to the ERT on scene where officers were preparing to enter a residence.
It was not only used to look through a window to identify where people were located inside a house, but it also became the eyes on the front of the house for the ERT while its members entered through the rear.
But the vast majority of work the UAV does involves taking pictures of crash scenes.
Nightingale is quick to point out that the device is not used by the police for surveillance.
He says it’s too noisy, can only be operated within the line of sight of the pilot, and does not have a specialized camera for low light situations. It’s 18-megapixel digital camera takes regular photographs at a maximum height of 150 metres, substantially lower than a helicopter could fly. And because it is small, it can get into areas large aircraft cannot.
With its wide-angle 16-millimetre lens, the camera captures an entire crash scene in one photo. Prior to its introduction, Nightingale said officers would have had to take a series of photos from the ground using set points of reference on a marker held by another officer. That process could take a few hours. Now it takes just 10 minutes for the UAV to do its work.
Unlike hobbyists who fly remote-controlled aircraft and cheaper, amateur versions of camera-equipped drones, commercial operators—of which the RCMP is included—have to abide by set rules laid down under the federal Transportation Act.
Those rules include mandatory line-of-sight operation, the pilot must be assisted by another officer who watches the ground while the drone is in flight, contacting air traffic control if the UAV is to be used within seven kilometres of an airport and not allowing anyone to stand directly under the unit when it is in the air.
A recent case in Vancouver created a call for the extension of those rules for hobbyists after a drone was flown close to Vancouver International Airport without the pilot notifying the airport. The use of drones to help police do their job was also in the headlines last year when a Saskatchewan RCMP officer, called in to fly a drone over the scene of a car crash in a remote area, was able to locate the driver who stumbled away from the scene in a daze and was found more than a kilometre away with the aid of a thermal imaging device that was attached to the drone’s camera.
While the local UAV does not have thermal imaging capabilities yet, Maetche said police here would like to have it and the business case is being made to get it. While the UAV has made the task of gathering information at crash scenes easier and more complete, it is the computer software that translates the points on the photographs into a full picture of what happened that is the real star.
And that is also evolving.
Using what is known as a “point cloud,” the software creates a virtual reconstruction of the events that led up to and included the crash from the points identified on the picture by ICARS officers. Aided by other sources of information such as the computerized “black box” that all modern vehicles now have, the police can ascertain how fast a vehicle was traveling, when its brakes were applied and the exact moment the airbags were deployed. All of that information goes into reconstructing the incident.
But it all starts with the collection of visual images high above the scene.
And that is where drones are helping change the job of collision reconstruction unit officers.