The Sahuarita Police Department will be the first police agency in the Tucson area to use aerial drones as part of its regular investigative tools beginning around mid-December.
Officers should be maneuvering small drones — weighing 3 pounds — during daily investigations and other duties, said the town’s police chief.
It will be another tool at officers’ disposal that will be a “huge and significant step for us in crime-scene processing,” said Police Chief John Noland.
The successful use of the drones could be an inexpensive alternative to using helicopters for small police departments, said James Lawrence, the president and chief executive officer of Drone Control Systems, the company working with Sahuarita police.
On Tuesday, a demonstration of the drones’ capabilities and the system developed by Lawrence was displayed to state, federal and local law enforcement agencies at Sahuarita’s municipal headquarters. Drones are more commonly used by federal agencies along the border.
Eleven Sahuarita police officers are expected to be trained to pilot the unmanned aircraft and become certified by the FAA to operate the drones through a pilot program between the drone company and the Police Department, said Noland.
Officers will use the aircraft for criminal investigations and search-and-rescue operations. The drones are equipped to take video and photographs.
Quentin Mehr, an Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesman, said the state agency “has not officially adopted the use of drones, but we are in the process of getting certified by the FAA to test the use of drones.” Mehr said “it is in the early stages” and officials do not have a timetable of when state troopers may be using drones.
In Sahuarita, police officers trained on the drones “would be able to use GPS to map, film or photograph a crime scene, and that would be a huge and significant step for us,” said Noland, in explaining the versatility of a drone at vehicle crashes, and also its impact during search and rescue operations.
Time is of the essence when searching for a person at risk, especially during triple-digit heat, explained the police chief, adding that more space can be covered with a drone.
Noland said his department employs 46 commissioned officers for the town of 28,000. It has an annual budget of roughly $7.5 million.
“I know the public has a concern about what flies over them and can take pictures,” said Noland. He emphasized the drones will be used for police work, and not to be “snooping” on people’s privacy.
When processing a crime scene, investigators will have a search warrant in hand, said Sahuarita police Lt. Matt McGlone, who is overseeing the drone training for the department. “The drone does not drive our need to get a warrant. The Fourth Amendment does. The drone is a tool that will be used during the investigation,” said McGlone.
The department purchased two drones at a total cost of about $4,000. The remainder of the services, training and materials were provided by Drone Control Systems.
The annual budget for a package providing training, software and hardware for a small police department involving 10 officers would initially be about $56,000, said Lawrence. On top of that, the department is responsible for purchasing its drones.
The electric aircraft being used by Sahuarita police was manufactured by DJI and can travel up to 44 mph with about 30 minutes of flight time. Its maximum range is about three miles.
Noland said more drones may be purchased, depending on the department’s resources and needs.
Evidence compiled by the drones will be stored on the department’s computer servers, said Noland. When needed, other digital storage options will be examined, such as a professional media storage company, he said.
Lawrence said he has developed software and hardware to provide real-time data from the drones to those operating the unmanned aircraft.
The Police Department’s command center personnel would know exactly where the drones were operating and what actually was being done during the operation, said Lawrence. The information would be shared with ground crews through advanced mobile apps, he said.
In addition to pilot training and the maintenance of a drone, the company also helps pilots fly the drones safely and remain in compliance with laws governing the use of unmanned aircraft.
Drone Control Systems, which has its main office in Dragoon, is a startup company that was established last year to safely manage drone flight operations.