A view from above
MPD is using drones to photograph, map crash scenes
WAILUKU — Police are taking flight over some traffic collisions, using a drone to photograph and map the crash scenes more quickly and precisely.
“This is the future of crash investigation,” said police traffic commander Lt. William Hankins. “The pictures are crystal clear.
“We’re the only traffic unit in the state that’s doing this.”
Sgt. Kenneth Kihata, who heads the Vehicle Homicide Unit that is called out to investigate fatal and near-fatal traffic crashes, obtained a Federal Aviation Administration Part 107 pilot’s license to operate the drone.
It is being flown over crash scenes to take photos after traffic investigators on the ground have identified evidence, such as skid marks and debris, in fatal and near-fatal crashes. Traffic investigators also mark and take measurements of ground control points that correlate with photos taken by the drone, which are then used to create maps and a mosaic photo.
“Now we have that tool,” Kihata said.
Because federal grant funding wouldn’t cover drones, then Police Chief Tivoli Faaumu suggested last year that the Traffic Section seek funding from the nonprofit Maui Police Foundation, which raises money to supplement equipment and training for the Maui Police Department. Assistant Chief Victor Ramos, who oversees the MPD drone program, supported the move, Hankins said.
The foundation provided $7,100 to buy three Autel EVO II Pro drones, as well as funding for six officers to obtain commercial pilot’s licenses to operate the drones.
“If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have drones,” Kihata said.
The foundation paid the testing fee and airfare to Honolulu for Kihata, who obtained his FAA Part 107 pilot’s license for small unmanned aerial vehicles. He completed a 40-hour online preparation course before going to Honolulu for the written test.
So far, he is the only Traffic Section officer and among a handful of MPD officers who have pilot’s licenses to operate drones.
“It’s not something everybody can do,” Hankins said. “The training he has to go through and the licensing is challenging.”
While other police divisions are using drones, “we’re the only ones using it for mapping,” Hankins said. “Our uses are specific for traffic needs.”
Technology is always changing,” he said. “If we don’t use this technology, we’re going to be left behind.”
Traffic officers recently completed a PiX4D training course to use mapping software that stitches together overlapping drone photos into an orthomosaic to provide a full photo of a crash scene. The department received $10,000 in grant funding through the state Department of Transportation for the training.
In years past, traffic officers tried to use photogrammetry to create such crash scene photos, Hankins said. But the process was time consuming and subject to human error, he said.
With the drone photos stitched together through the software program, “it takes the human element out,” he said.
Because the drone takes photos from a straight-down perspective without an angle, the photos are to-scale and measurements are precise, said Vehicle Homicide Unit investigator Ryan Ehlers. “One of the reasons we haven’t used pictures in the past is the curvature of the Earth,” he said.
Investigators will still use a total station instrument to measure five points in the crash scene from the ground “just to make sure the drone is correct,” Ehlers said.
With the drone, the mapping work might take 10 minutes, compared with a half-hour or 45 minutes if done by officers on the ground, Ehlers said. “It’s a good tool.”
“It just tells a better story immediately,” said Vehicle Homicide Unit officer David Potter.
Depending on the crash scene, the drone will take 70 to 400 photos, Kihata said. Once officers have identified the evidence on the ground, the drone flight time averages 10 to 12 minutes, he said.
For a “fairly compact” fatal crash scene the night of July 19 in Kihei, the drone took 46 photos to document the scene in a four-minute flight, Kihata said. “It was fast,” he said.
That night, the drone took the photos while 80 feet high, above power lines, although it may be flown higher for other crash scenes. In some circumstances, such as if it’s too windy, police may decide not to use the drone, Kihata said.
Another officer can fly the drone, as long as Kihata is there to supervise.
“The benefit to the public is road closure times can be cut, probably in more than half, depending on the crash,” Hankins said.
In the 1990s, he said it wasn’t uncommon for roads to be closed for five to seven hours while police investigated a collision. Since then, the time has been reduced to two to two and a half hours, he said.
“Now, we’re able to cut that time down even more with these drones and get more points of evidence with one shot,” Hankins said. “It just depends on how fast we can identify the points from when we get on scene.
“We understand that closing the road is a huge inconvenience, but it’s not as important as a person who died and a family who wants answers from the police. We owe it to them that we do this job right because we only get one shot at prosecution.”
Hankins noted that before the drone is airborne, traffic investigators must examine the scene and the evidence showing how a crash occurred.
“In traffic, a lot of our subjects have passed away, so we have to get the evidence from the road,” Hankins said. The roadway talks to us and tells us what we need to know from every crash scene. Sometimes it’s harder to see.
“When we do an interrogation, we always know what happened. It’s our responsibility to find what’s there. It comes through nonstop training and unfortunately, repetitive crashes.
“Until we understand what we have and how the crash occurred, we can’t start mapping. We have to know exactly what happened in that crash before the drone goes up, and that is what takes time.”
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.