Provincial police are quietly testing helicopter-like drones to photograph major collisions in Hamilton and surrounding areas to try to quickly reopen highways clogged with frustrated motorists.
“The goal is rapid clearance without compromising the investigation,” said OPP Sergeant Brad Muir, who heads a crash investigation team and “pilots” one of two unmanned aerial vehicles bought last spring for the experiment.
His team has tested the drone at about 15 investigation sites so far, including at a fatal collision between two minivans and a car that closed Highway 6 in both directions between Millgrove and Freelton last May.
The largely unadvertised pilot project is working so far, Muir said.
“We do anticipate in most cases this will reduce our time on scene and, therefore, the road closure time.”
The mini-unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called drones, are increasingly used by police forces for investigative purposes. In Halton, drones have been used since 2011 in marijuana busts and missing person searches.
Muir doesn’t like the term drone, arguing people associate the word with “weaponized” technology used to kill military targets.
“The only thing this thing can shoot is photos,” he said.
Muir remotely shoots about 150 photos of each crash site with the drone hovering at about the height of a 16-storey building. He uses a tablet to control the Aeryon Scout, a four-armed drone sold by a Waterloo company. The whole process takes about 15 minutes and pictures are later electronically stitched together. The same job on the ground can take two hours.
Muir hastens to add photography is only one element of a reconstruction.
“We’re not going to wrap up one of those in 15 minutes,” he said. But he said the use of drone photography could knock 30 to 45 minutes off of a highway closure.
Hamilton sees anywhere from four to seven highway closures on the 403 every year, with five already racked up in 2014. The average closure last nearly five hours.
That’s too long, said Councillor Lloyd Ferguson, who added many residents feel the length of closures has increased over time.
“Any technology they can use to get these things cleaned up and the highways open more expeditiously, I am going to support it wholeheartedly,” said the Ward 12 councillor, who fields constant complaints about highway closures “clogging up” local roads in Ancaster.
Muir agreed police have had to adapt to “higher expectations” over the years from the courts when it comes to evidence collection, but added the OPP still aims to clear most collision scenes in four hours or less.
The drones cost more than $60,000 each, when factoring in training. Muir said there is no firm timeline for the OPP’s pilot project.
Drones have featured prominently in recent reports from Ontario’s information and privacy commissioner, Ann Cavoukian. In a report last summer on public surveillance, she notes federal certificates required to fly drones in Canada don’t address privacy. Cavoukian recommends annual public reporting on drone use and privacy policies.
Muir said police follow specific privacy procedures that include never losing direct sight of the drone and only flying and taking photos at the actual collision scene. So if you’re stuck on the highway behind a collision, you shouldn’t have to hide from eyes in the sky.
“We’re pretty careful where we fly,” he said. “We’re not trying to capture any images that you wouldn’t expect to be captured with ground level cameras.”