Police drone program already paying dividends for city

The new system not only allows police to get more accurate images of crime scenes, but also allows them to clear scenes and open roads much faster than in the past.

Councilmembers Ruth Perez and Armondo Pavone examine a police drone during the Sept. 26 Committee of the Whole meeting.

It’s only been one month since the Renton Police Department announced they would begin using unmanned aerial drones equipped with “photogrammetry” software to help process crime and accident scenes and already the police say the program is paying dividends.

“It’s paying off huge,” said Renton Police Commander Chad Karlewicz this week. “The results are fantastic.”

The new system not only allows police to get more accurate images of crime scenes, but also allows them to clear scenes and open roads much faster than in the past.

Karlewicz appeared before the City Council’s Committee of the Whole on Monday to update the council on the program and how it works and touted the program’s benefits.

The program works through a pair of small, remote-controlled aircrafts that police launch to take photographs of scene, as opposed to the traditional way of using surveyor’s tools.

According to Karleqicz, it gives a much more detailed look at crime and accident scenes because it is able to map hundreds of millions of points on a map in just minutes, compared to the 400 or so points police would spend about four hours to gather under the old methods.

Then, after the points were gathered, police would have to spend hours reconstructing a drawing of the scene. Now, thanks to computer software, that takes only minutes.

“It was a very labor-intensive process and its accuracy was somewhat limited,” Karlewicz told the council, adding that the new method is accurate to 0.23 inches, calling the increased accuracy a “night and day difference.”

Police can also construct a 3D image of the scene that they can then rotate 360 degrees on their computers.

But along with the accuracy, the biggest benefit to police, and the community as whole, may be the speed with which the photogrammetry can clear a scene. At a large scene in Auburn recently, the drone completed its work in just eight minutes, instead of an estimated 12 hours by the traditional method.

“It’s really a game-changer,” he said.

Karlewicz said the photogrammetry was also used in Renton last week to map the scene of a fatality accident that closed South Grady Way for several hours during rush hour. Karlewicz said the drones allowed the police to complete their work in about 40 minutes instead of the usual three hours, which not only saved police time, but meant the road was open that much quicker.

“Our time on scene is decreasing,” he said.

Karlewicz said the department is already looking to ways to expand the program, though current policy only allows for taking photographs/video for investigative support of traffic accidents, homicides and other crime scenes, hazmat responses, search and rescue operations, barricaded persons, disaster response and tactical support.

The department currently owns two drones. The first is equipped with a digital still camera, the other with a GoPro.

The program costs about $30,000 and police said this year it was a budgeted expense that should make up its cost over time in savings to the department through other expenses like overtime.

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