Great Falls Police Department drone program takes off

Posted at 4:17 PM, Sep 17, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-17 18:17:36-04

GREAT FALLS – The Great Falls Police Department is utilizing a drone to provide another tool to help keep officers and those they serve safe.

Since the drone program’s inception in the fall of 2017, it has been used on 17 missions, including five crime scene documentations, five search and rescue efforts, four investigative calls, two High Risk Unit callout support cases, and one public relations call.

GFPD drone operator Sgt. Rob Beall explained, “One of our main missions is crime scene documentation. So when we have a significant crime scene, especially an outdoor one, we will use it to document those crime scenes. The other thing we use it significantly for is for search and rescue missions.”

The DJI Matrice 200 is equipped with a 4k camera, and also uses a Flir camera to see heat signatures at night. The $15,000 price tag, along with a lower cost backup and training drone, was paid for in full by the Great Falls Police Community Foundation.

Two people are involved in a drone mission the pilot, and the visual observer. Right now, seven members of GFPD are trained to operate the drone. They’re hoping to train two more soon.

The drone not only helps officers be more efficient by saving time, but it also gives them a whole new perspective on the world around them, providing safety for both officers and citizens.

“It gives us the ability to get above everything else. Whether we’re doing a methodical search over a large area for an armed individual, it gives us the ability to oversee that and guide our folks on the ground as safe as possible into secure these areas and as we move on, and in some instances we’ve done a leapfrog motion to clear a yard, and the moved onto the next,” explained Sgt. Beall.

In a search and rescue scenario along the Missouri River in Great Falls, the drone was used as an eye in the sky to help locate a person in the water long before the rescue boat was able to find or see the person.

“We were able to locate the male victim long before the fire department was able to get there with their rescue boat, and it worked out because we were able to hover the drone right over the top. They didn’t have to search for him at all. They arrived, they showed up, and they performed life-saving measures on the male. There’s no telling how long that would’ve taken if they had to do it from the boat scanning it at three feet above the water, where we had him located in less than 30 second upon taking off,” Sgt. Beall said.

GFPD abides by all federal laws and FAA regulations when operating the drone, including contacting the Great Falls International Airport tower, staying at 400 feet above ground or lower, keeping the drone within line of sight, and applicable state law statutes regarding collections of evidence.

They also notify Malmstrom Air Force Base Helo Operations, and Benefis Mercy Flight, which get flight priority over the police drone.

“We don’t have any interest in making it even questionable whether or not we’re violating someone’s rights. We’re not out enforcing traffic laws, we’re not out patrolling and arbitrarily flying it around and looking at things. That’s not what we do. It’s not as a law enforcement agency how we want to police in our community. So we use it as a measure and means for saving lives and for crime scene documentation. And all of it’s based off of responses,” said Sgt. Beall.

Reporting by Shannon Newth for MTN News