A new drone will supplement the Bristol Police Department's ability to respond to a variety of situations and keep personnel safer.
Several Bristol police officers recently gathered at the Town Beach Complex for a morning of drone-flying practice with Sgt. Adam Kennett and Lt. Simon Liu, officers from the Rhode Island State Police (RISP).
The BPD recently had the opportunity to add a DJI Matrice 30 drone to their arsenal of public safety tools; eight officers are in the process of getting certified and up to speed with the skills it takes to operate this versatile tool. The drone can be seamlessly integrated into the suite of communications and body camera equipment by Axon that the Department will be using moving forward.
Sgt. Brian Morse is overseeing the process of onboarding the drone and its handlers. “Four of us have already passed the test, the others will be doing it in the next couple of weeks,” he said, noting that having eight officers trained with the device will mean that there is always someone capable of handling it on duty.
At about $14,000, the drone was not inexpensive, but after the July 4 Highland Park shooting, at which an assailant opened fire on the crowd at an Independence Day parade in Illinois, it seemed like it would be a prudent addition. According to Morse, the purchase was financed through a police fund of money seized from drug interdictions.
It won’t be the first time drones have been used for July 4th security — RISP has several drones and has brought them to Bristol to aid in parade security in recent years; this will be an additional asset on those days.
“RISP has been very good about helping us, but we have our own stuff,” said Morse. “We have the concert series, the tree lighting, graduation, sporting events. We want to be able to do our own security checks.”
In addition to long-range cameras, drones can be equipped with thermal imaging and night vision cameras — invaluable in a search-and-rescue operation. They are useful for zooming in on suspicious packages, and responding to incidents in which sending officers in immediately could be hazardous. “Having a drone advance just gives us an overview of the situation,” said Morse.
The drone will also have the ability to locate a person who has has a boating accident, fallen or jumped from the Mt. Hope Bridge, much faster than a vessel, which can take 10-15 minutes to deploy to the area and has limited nighttime visibility. The drone could increase the likelihood of a rapid recovery, or rescue.
“It’s not going to work 100% all the time, but it is something that we'll be able to put up and hopefully help us quickly locate a person who might be distress,” said Morse. In search and rescue operations, you can program the drone to follow a grid pattern for complete coverage of the search area.
Protection against the unknown
Drones could also be very useful for the handful of active and threatened shooting incidents we have had in Bristol and Warren in the past year or so. When an armed subject has barricaded themselves in a home, that’s probably the most dangerous scenario an officers could face. A drone could be sent up to get a layout of the home, see if people are coming and going; thermal imaging can even show where in the home people are located.
“It’s a force multiplier, to help us assess the situation and see what we're dealing with before we send a SWAT team up,” said Morse. “It will better enable officers to make a safe entry and hopefully come to a peaceful resolution.”
Much like the body cameras that will soon be standard equipment for officers, the drone is also equipped with a program that can communicate images to the Chief and other leadership in the mobile command center in the event of a major incident, allowing them to better assess a situation.
Taking the controls for part of the morning demonstration is Kennett of RISP, the point person for the state’s arsenal of drones. He’s showing Bristol’s trainees the drone’s visual capabilities from about 3,500 feet away from their location. For perspective, it takes the drone, capable of flying about 50 mph, about 30 seconds to return to base.
“You can go out a couple miles if you have clear line of sight,” said Kennett. “But the the big thing is how long is your battery going to last? You need to get it back.” A typical battery charge will last about 40 minutes, so managing the batteries is an important part of maintaining the drone in a ready status.
“It's not a huge learning curve, but it's a perishable skill and it just takes practice,” Kennett said. “Especially inside a house…knowing your parameters, knowing where the drone could fit and where it can't fit and what hazards to avoid. Those are all just things you gain with experience and practice.”
Multiple other uses
Other applications could include assisting at the scene of a fire (though the Bristol Fire Department already has their own drone for that purpose), crime scene investigation and analysis, and accident reconstruction.
“It’s been a huge asset for accident reconstruction,” said Kennett. “The point of view is fantastic, to get that top-down aerial perspective. And we can clear the scene much faster now. We just send the drone up for about 30 minutes and it runs a grid and takes about 300 pictures of the crash scene, then we import those images into software which then builds a map for us. And we take all of our measurements off that image as opposed to actually doing it on the scene.
“We can open up the highway almost an hour faster by doing it that way. It’s safer for the public, safer for the first responders, and the accuracy's actually better.”
Bristol’s drone is for outdoor use only, it is versatile and will be effective in most of the situations the BPD is likely to encounter, though a large department will have several, in a range of sizes. RISP has six. Some are for SWAT operations, others are mini for indoor operations, others excel at search and rescue.
“I tell people drones are like canines, in that you can't just get get one drone and expect it to do it all,” said Kennett. “Just like you have drug canines and search and rescue canines, computer chip canines and arson canines, drones are really good at certain specific tasks. There’s no one drone that just does everything.”