Traffic Detective Sean McMillan guides the new drone up 200 feet in the air — just half the height it’s legally allowed to reach — before bringing it down for a smooth landing.
Detectives will use these drones — the Pima County Sheriff Department’s Traffic Investigation Unit has two — to examine traffic accidents with fatalities and serious injuries. Previously, detectives would climb a fire engine ladder to get the aerial photos they needed. McMillan says with drones, investigating traffic accidents is easier, faster and, ultimately, cheaper.
The Sheriff’s Department has only used the drones twice so far. Investigating a fatal traffic collision in Green Valley on Saturday, the drone accomplished in 14 minutes what would have taken an hour with traditional methods, McMillan said.
McMillan is one of five traffic detectives with the department who is certified by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly the drones. The remote pilot operators have to follow all federal laws while operating drones, including not flying directly over people’s heads or in restricted airspaces.
The drones are coupled with software to take photos and measurements of roadway scars that help determine the causes of collisions.
The software was the most expensive part of the program at $8,700, plus annual maintenance costs. It can measure road marks with accuracy within half an inch and take still images and stitch them together to create maps and 3D images. The cost of the two drones together was $3,581. There were additional costs for training the five pilots, who each receive 40 hours of instruction.
While the drones are operational for both day and night investigations, they can’t be used in rain or strong winds.
“We’ll always have our tape measures and our vehicles because technology does break sometimes,” McMillan said.
The Sheriff’s Department joins other local agencies using drones. The Oro Valley Police Department purchased three last year. It has used drones for things like search-and-rescue and monitoring crowd size and safety at an outdoor festival.
The Sahuarita Police Department and the Arizona Department of Public Safety both employ drones during investigations.
Drones are cheaper and quieter than helicopters, and can be safer than sending in officers, McMillan said.
Another new drone pilot, Detective Jorge Rodriguez, said in the future, other units of the Sheriff’s Department may use the drones for investigations, such as homicides or search-and-rescue.
“Other units can look at what we do and how they can benefit from it,” he said about using drones. “There are lots of applications. It depends what we come up with.”