Since Michigan State Police became the first law enforcement agency in the nation authorized to use drones for public safety purposes in 2015, unmanned aircraft systems, or UASs have been adopted by many police and fire departments, including in […]
Since Michigan State Police became the first law enforcement agency in the nation authorized to use drones for public safety purposes in 2015, unmanned aircraft systems, or UASs have been adopted by many police and fire departments, including in Livingston County.
The Livingston County Sheriff's Department was the first agency in the county to acquire a UAS in 2017, and now drones are used by the Greek Oak Police, Hamburg Fire Department and the Hartland Deerfield Fire Authority.
Brighton Police Department became the most recent agency to join the growing team of agencies that have drones. City Council OK'd the purchase of a $20,000 drone in February and it arrived at the police department this week.
Livingston County Sheriff's Department has been using small unmanned aircraft systems, or sUASs, since 2017. Sgt. Chad Sell said the sheriff's department now has five sUASs and seven officers licensed to fly them.
"Five sounds like a lot, but the reason we have so many is because the technology keeps getting better," Sell said. "We're using our current ones until their end of life - three of them aren't made anymore and the other two are newer and get used more frequently."
Sell said the sheriff's department sUASs get called out 20-30 times a year. Their primary use is for traffic crash reconstruction.
"We use them for serious crashes where injuries were fatal or there's a possibility for criminal charges," he said. "We can take the photographs and create a scale diagram of the accident."
Because aerial photographs show the entire scene, first responders can gather evidence much quicker. Sell said the sUASs have reduced road closure times significantly.
Sell said sUASs really shine in search and rescue missions. The drones are equipped with night vision and thermal cameras, which make searches much easier.
"The big cost savings is time and effort," Sell said. "We can search an entire cornfield in 20 minutes and confirm a person isn't in there. We don't need 15 emergency personnel going out there to look."
With the help of a sUAS, the Livingston County Sheriff's Office was able to find a man who got lost in a wooded area in Putnam Township in 2019. The man was out for a walk when he realized he was lost and his phone battery was almost dead. He called 911 and the sheriff's office was able to track his phone and deploy the drone near its location. Once deputies saw him on the camera, they were able to get to him within 10 minutes.
Craig Flood, deputy chief of the Brighton Police Department, said his department purchased a drone to use to quickly find someone who needs help.
"We have a lot of facilities in the city that treat patients with closed head injuries and special needs," Flood said. "If someone wanders off or gets lost, we can put (the drone) up and search an area without even moving.
"It's a force multiplier for us."
Drones also improve the safety of first responders, Sell said. In the case of a car accident with hazardous materials or a high-risk mission with a possibly dangerous suspect, officers can send in the drone first to assess the situation.
Fire departments use UASs for similar purposes. Sending a drone above a fire can give firefighters a better view of the situation, and it can take photos for evidence in an investigation.
With almost a dozen sUASs around the county, first responders nearly always have the ability to call for one. For example, Sell said the sheriff's office can deploy one to a fire while firefighters are on the ground, or a fire department can send theirs to a search-and-rescue mission while police investigate on foot.
Drones are an investment, Flood said. Brighton's new drone cost $20,000, but he said the value they provide is much higher.
"It's really a life safety aspect," Flood said. "When time matters, deploying a drone can save someone's life."
Sell said each of the sheriff's office sUASs was around $10,000 for the initial purchase, and the agency budgets for maintenance as well.
"Surprisingly, the maintenance is rather inexpensive because beside the computer, the parts are plastic," Sell said. "It usually costs a couple of hundred dollars here and there for batteries or propellers."
Since drones are so new, regulations are still being written and updated. As aircraft, UASs are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration. For the most part, the rules are the same regardless of how the drone is being used - it must be registered with the FAA, it can't fly higher than 400 feet, it must stay within the pilot's line of sight, it can't be flown at night or near an airport and it can't be flown above a person or moving vehicle.
Law enforcement and other commercial entities have to take a knowledge test to become certified drone pilots.
There aren't many rules about how law enforcement can use drones. Sell said the sheriff's department treats it like any other tool to gather evidence.
"We obtain a search warrant to fly over someone's house," Sell said. "We have to establish to the court that we have a reason to be there and take pictures."
Because there aren't many rules about flying UASs, privacy is a concern among citizens, said Adam Zwickle, an associate professor at Michigan State University. Zwickle conducted a study in 2016 about people's perceptions of drones when there were almost no regulations in place yet.
His study included a survey of 768 people about what regulations they felt should be in place for specific drone uses.
"Everything came down to safety versus privacy," Zwickle said. "People were in favor of the use of drones when it benefitted public safety and supported policies that encouraged safety. They were least in favor when they infringed on people's privacy."
Based on the data Zwickle recorded, respondents were highly supportive of the use of drones for search and rescue, but they were less supportive of the use of drones for law enforcement purposes.
"It's an uncomfortable balance between safety and privacy," Zwickle said. "Law enforcement departments should know that and be very clear about their uses."
Flood stressed that Brighton Police intend to use the drone as a safety tool, not an observation tool. The only time police might deploy it for observation would be at a large public event where officers would observe on the ground anyway.
"We could surveil a large outside gathering, but that's an open venue. There's no expectation of privacy out in the street," Flood said.
Sell said the sUASs are not like the ones people see in the movies.
"The camera's aren't that good," he said. "You can't see through people's windows or look into or under their cars.
"It's just another tool, just like the AEDs, the Narcan and the fingerprint kits we keep in our vehicles. It just makes us more efficient."
Contact Sara Kellner at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @skellner21.