HELENA — Traffic is one of the many ires of modern society, and in many cases is caused by a car accident. While Helena's traffic isn't exactly comparable to that of a major metropolitan area, it can still cause headaches along major thoroughfares, but the Helena Police Department is now using a drone to limit their time diagramming crash sites, ultimately saving Helena drivers the extended headache.
"We can have the roadway shut down if we need to, for a lot less amount of time, which then kind of translates to not being an inconvenience to the public," said Detective Sean Schoenfelder. "We can capture the scene from basically a bird's eye view, or really any view that we want to, with hundreds of photos that can get stitched together for a really, you know, detailed scale diagram in a matter of minutes."
While the use of drones by law enforcement in Montana isn't new, Montana Highway Patrol has they use for similar circumstances, the introduction of the drone to the Helena Police Department is already helping the department over the previous equipment officers used, says Helena Police Chief Brett Petty.
"The Total Station, what we used to use, was very cumbersome. It took us hours and hours to shoot a scene," said Petty. "It's making the police department more efficient. I can — I don't have to send as many resources out to a crash scene and for a long period of time, while they diagram the scene. They can get out there, get the scene diagram, get the evidence that they need with the drone in this amount of time, rather than tying up an intersection or tying up wherever they're shooting the scene for long periods of time."
While the drone's main use case is diagramming car accident sites, it has other uses as well. MHP showcased their ability to use a drone on search and rescue calls, Det. Schoenfelder also noted that the drone has a thermal imaging camera that can be used to assist the Helena Fire Department.
"We have a very active community, the Mount Helena city park is in our jurisdiction, we have Mount Ascension, a couple of other things. So, we can use it for like a search and rescue type of operation. We could also assist other entities such as Helena Fire," said Schoenfelder. "Trying to find people that might be lost, or looking at a building to see, you know, where a fire or some other hazard like that might be."
Currently, Helena Police has two fully licensed pilots that are able to operate the drone on solo flights, but three more members of the department are working towards obtaining their licenses through the Federal Aviation Administration.
Though the use of drones by law enforcement can be a helpful tool, Schoenfelder understands that some may be wary of Helena Police and other agencies around the state using drones.
"There's a very specific part in state law about how we can use a drone as far as evidence collection. We're very, you know, cognizant of people kind of — the eye in the sky, so to speak. We still have to follow the same search and seizure laws as we would with anything else that we do," said Schoenfelder. " I think we've developed, with the help of other entities that already have drones, developed a really good program of people that are on the team that use the drone. That are competent, you know, in their job as police officers already. And I think we can run a very safe and efficient operation that also doesn't violate people's rights."
Per Montana law, "information from an unmanned aerial vehicle is not admissible" unless it was acquired after obtaining a search warrant, a law enforcement officer has probable cause, or while a law enforcement agency is investigating a car accident that either happens on or involves a public road.