High-flying tech: Police add 5 drones to aid in search operations

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Members of the media were captured by thermal imaging by the drone at a demonstration Wednesday afternoon at the Manchester Police Department. Photo/Pat Grossmith

MANCHESTER, NH —  Late Tuesday afternoon, a suicidal woman was tracked down in a wooded section of Derryfield Park by a  drone, the first time an Unmanned Aerial System  (UAS) was used by police.

It was the first public indication that the police department had drones.  Wednesday morning, police announced the successful rescue and that they had recently formed a UAS unit, familiarly known as the drone unit.

“It was Officer (Joseph) Tucker who approached myself and the command staff here at the police department about forming a drone unit,” said Chief Carlo Capano.  “Officer Tucker gave a presentation detailing the benefits of having such a unit. I was immediately sold on the idea, but this incident reaffirms my belief that this resource will be a valuable tool for the Manchester Police Department. We are fortunate to have the technology and the expertise of Officer Tucker which allowed us to successfully locate the woman last night and bring her to safety.”

Officer Joseph Tucker used this drone Late Tuesday afternoon to find a suicidal woman on the south side of Derryfield Park. Police announced Wednesday that they recently formed an Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) unit, familiarly known as the Drone Unit./Pat Grossmith photo

Tucker, the first Manchester officer to become a certified drone pilot, was at the helm in the 4:40 p.m. search for the 20-year-old woman who had run into the woods.   It was already dark and police used cruiser lights to illuminate the area.  Police said the area was too large to search by foot so Tucker was called in.

Tucker, who is also a K-9 officer, said a dog could have been used in the search but police did not know where the woman entered the woods and it would have resulted in a lengthier search.

Wednesday afternoon at the station, Tucker demonstrated for the media how the drone, which has thermal imaging, worked and provided more details about the successful search.

Using thermal imaging on the drone, flying about 150 to 200 feet above the park, police were able to pick up a small blue light indicating there was a person on the eastern side of the park, near Weston Tower.  The drone hovered over the spot as officers walked through the woods to the location.  They found the woman on the ground, unharmed.

Tucker said the blue light, instead of a yellow or orange color, indicated that she had lost heat.   She was taken by ambulance to a hospital for treatment.

Before the drone could be used, Tucker said police had to get approval from the Federal Aviation Administration because Manchester has designated Class C airspace because of the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport.

Tuesday’s use of the drone was recorded from flight up to flight down.  All those recordings are subject to Right to Know requests, he said.

“It’s to help protect us from any allegations that we’re looking into people’s homes, that we’re Peeping Toms,” he said.

One of Manchester Police Department’s five drones. Photo/Pat Grossmith

The department purchased five drones, the thermal imaging one and four smaller ones, through a federal grant.   The smaller drones have zoom capability.  Officials did not disclose what the drones cost.

However, the thermal imaging device is a Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual which, in a search online, sells for about $3,350 and can be purchased by the public.  Tucker said it was selected because of its portability.

Tucker said in order to qualify for the grants, the department had to meet guidelines for standard operating procedures written during the Obama Administration and which ensure the public’s privacy rights.

“Our goal is not to spy on anybody in their house,” he said.  “Clearly, it’s for the two-year-old who is out missing.  I have a child and if my child was missing and this was available and they weren’t using it I would be incensed.”

The Mavic 2 thermal imaging drone was specifically selected for search and rescue incidents.   The smaller drones, he said, were selected for use in SWAT incidents as a safety measure for officers.

“We already use camera technology when we do our SWAT operations,” he said. Now, the camera is airborne.

When officers execute a search warrant, sometimes individuals hide in attics or dark basements.  The smaller drones can be sent in ahead of an officer, ensuring his safety, Tucker said.

Police said the drone unit, comprised of two supervisors and 10 officers who will fly the drones, was created about a month ago.  Most of the officers are still being trained and have yet to be certified.

The training consists of an online course through DARPA Drones (Defense Advanced Research Projects Ageny) and then in-person flight training.  Tucker said it takes about a month to complete and then the officer has to pass a written exam to be certified.