A thermal image of Chief Jonathan Teale as captured by the Matice 210. Jim Franco / Spotlight News
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COLONIE — The Police Department’s drone program is still in its infancy, but in 10 months has been called upon 78 times. And yet, its full potential is not yet realized.
One of the most recent, and most dramatic calls, was to help Watervliet police find a suspected car thief hiding in a swampy field with six-foot high cattails behind the FedEx Building in Menands.
On Oct. 2, the suspect, according to News Channel 6, allegedly stole a car in Troy. Police spotted the car and the driver took off, eventually crashing in Watervliet. Carey Conyers was arrested shortly after the crash but the other Tyon Baker, fled on foot.
Watervliet searched the area for an hour, and as it got dark they called Colonie for help.
The “drone guys” responded and launched the Matice 210 equipped with a thermal imaging camera that can pick up heat signatures emanating from things on the ground.
Flying at about 175 feet, the camera picked up heat coming off Baker’s body and the drone crew guided the officers on foot to the suspect’s location where he surrendered and was placed under arrest.
Conyers and Baker were charged with felony criminal possession of stolen property and the misdemeanor of obstruction of governmental administration.
A video captured by the drone’s camera clearly shows a silhouette-like image of Baker kneeling in the weeds. A short time later, two other figures appear on the screen to Baker’s right, later determined to be Watervliet police officers, and then five others on his left, later determined to be officers from Colonie.
“The key is getting a perimeter established,” said Police Officer Dave Marra, who is certified to pilot a drone. “We had one call but we didn’t get a perimeter established and it was unsuccessful.”
Searching for suspects is one use of the drone program, which the department has invested some $30,000 to launch. Chief Jonathan Teale said drones have been used to monitor ice jams along the Mohawk River to help identify when or if flooding will happen and then alerting residents to the likelihood.
They have been used to look for missing persons, to get information about the scene of dangerous or potentially dangerous standoffs and to do reconnaissance of a residence prior to the serving of a high-risk warrant.
Drones have also been used to generate 3-D images from above to help fire departments detect hotspots after a fire has been extinguished, and to help get information on a fire’s cause and origin.
Soon, Teale said, the department will use them for accident reconstruction. Using sophisticated software, the drone can take photos of a scene from above and then generate the same type of information – like speed of the vehicles and when or if brakes were applied and a host of other data – it takes officers using surveying equipment hours to get.
“It will be safer for the officers and the citizens,” Teale said. “Rather than blocking lanes of traffic off for hours, we will be able to do it from the air in 20 minutes.”
The department began exploring the possibility of getting drones in January, 2017 and after purchasing the Marice 201 and the smaller Maverick Pro, getting the officers certified by the Federal Aviation Administration, working with the Albany International Airport and formulating standard operating procedures for their use, it officially got off the ground a year later.
Lt. Robert Winn, the department spokesman, said the crew’s first mission didn’t even entail going airborne.
A resident called 911 with concerns about a potential bomb under a bench on Wolf Road. Rather than send an officer or a live person to investigate, they put a drone on the ground and used its powerful camera to get shots of the box and the contents, which turned out to be discarded electrical equipment.
Monitoring hazardous materials or investigating situations where there may be hazardous materials is another benefit of having drones instead of using people.
“As we use it, we are finding more and more applications for it,” Winn said.
The cameras make up about half the cost. One is for thermal imaging, the other is infrared, which can better get images at night, and the other is a zoom powerful enough to read a license plate from a quarter mile away.
There are currently discussions about flying the drones inside, which would make it infinitely more safe for officers when dealing with armed standoffs or barricaded subjects.
But, Marra said, flying inside while using only the drone’s camera for navigation is tricky.
“Think about keeping the SWAT guys back out of harms’ way while we fly in and check everything out,” Marra said. “And if they do have to go in, they won’t until they have all the information on what is going on inside.”
A crew consists of a pilot — seven officers are currently certified — a spotter and a guy watching what the camera is seeing on something similar to an iPad. While trained and certified officers are the only ones who can pilot a drone, all the officers are trained as spotters to help out if the situation dictates.
Teale said they are becoming so proficient at what they do they are training officers in other departments and a production company, Call of the Loon, recently did a documentary on Colonie’s drone program. The film won first place during a contest at the New York State Fair this summer.
Teale and Winn were quick to point out the drones are not in flight 24-7 and are only called out when needed and when the application is in line with the SOP developed with extensive input from the FAA, the state and other departments that have drone programs in place.
“It is not out there surveilling the citizens of Colonie,” Winn said. “This is mission specific and that is all governed by our policies and procedures. We are aware of the issues with drone use and, without getting into specifics, we’ve turned down requests because it did not meet those policies and procedures.”
Teale, who has been a cop for 29 years, said he would not have imagined something like this when he signed up.
“People think of a police drone and they picture this large military aircraft, but this is akin to what a 12-year-old kid would have in the backyard,” he said. “It’s a very interesting tool and it’s a moral boost for the officers. It’s fun and it’s something different and the younger generation has an interest in it and they really do a great job.”