A lesson in the future

ACC students see how drones aid law enforcement

News Photo by Julie Riddle Alpena Community Collge Criminal Justice students observe a drone demonstration Wednesday, seeing firsthand the way new technology can be used in law enforcement.

ALPENA — A Police Operations class in Alpena Community College’s Criminal Justice program was treated to a drone demonstration Wednesday, illustrating the ways drones can be used in law enforcement.

ACC instructor David Cummins operated the drone, a white, lightweight device that looks like a child’s toy but can be used to reconstruct crime scenes or track down a missing person. The students watched the drone as it lifted off, bug-like, and ascended several hundred feet over their heads. Cummins held the controls, connected to a tablet on which the students could view images of woods, buildings, and themselves, beamed back from the camera attached to the small aircraft.

A battery life of about 20 minutes allows the drone to capture hundreds of images above a crime scene, gathering enough information to form a 3-D photographic model, Cummins said. Such models are invaluable to law enforcement, providing the ability to recapture a crime scene after it no longer exists, providing opportunity to measure and re-evaluate and see the scene from a different angle.

Drones are commonly used at the site of traffic crashes, according to Cummins, where they can capture details sometimes overlooked by the human eye, such as the ruts made by a tire on the shoulder of a road. He told the students of an investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration in which 3-D imagery from a drone allowed investigators to create a model of an airport, which was then put through wind simulations to determine whether an airplane that had crashed could have been damaged by high winds on the runway.

The students watched as the drone went through its paces on a pre-programmed flight, stopping at intervals against a blue sky to swivel into a stabilized position and snapping a photo with its high-tech camera before buzzing to the next point.

Trooper Jeff Mercer of the Michigan State Police-Gaylord Post oversees use of three drones used to assist in police investigations. The drones have been in service with MSP for four or five years, Mercer said, and are used in the Alpena area when needed, including recently in the case of a fatal shooting during last hunting season.

The MSP drones have been used to photograph traffic crashes, fire scenes, and crime scenes, as well as for search-and-rescue scenarios and documenting damage from storms. They can be useful in planning for special events, giving law enforcement an overview of the layout so they can better plan protective strategies, according to Mercer.

Pictures created by drones have been used by prosecutors in court to give a perspective on a crime not usually available to judges and juries, Mercer said.

Outside ACC’s World Center for Concrete Technology, the demonstration drone landed without incident before an admiring class of students. Back in the classroom, Cummins also shared information and video about the use of underwater robots to locate evidence and victims when an underwater situation is too dangerous for a human.

“As a human, we’re limited to our bodies,” Cummins said. “I’m limited to what was given to me, these eyes. But I’m not limited to that with a robot. I can change that.”

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or jriddle@thealpenanews.com.