Midstate law officers consider drones

As firefighters worked to free a fatal accident victim Wednesday, a white drone buzzed over Houston Road.

Flying above the crash site, the tiny aircraft captured high resolution pictures that will be used by traffic investigators.

“Typically in a serious accident, we get aerial photos, and in the past we had to get a helicopter,” Bibb County Sheriff David Davis said. “It works very well to have something on scene to get photos.”

As technology becomes cheaper, more law enforcement agencies are considering purchasing drones.

In the recent accident involving a dump truck and a car that collided near Allen Road, former Bibb County REACT volunteer Lou Crouch flew his personal drone over the wreckage, providing overhead images that could give details missed from street level.

Davis is considering purchasing a drone for the department.

“You can get a fully outfitted, tricked-out drone with a lot of video capability well under $10,000, which is in reach for law enforcement agencies,” Davis said.

Warner Robins Police Chief Brett Evans also has been researching the devices for his department.

“I have tremendous interest in one,” he said.

His traffic investigators also have called upon Georgia State Patrol helicopter pilots to be their eyes in the sky. Often a flyover is not possible until hours later.

“Having the ability to have one up in the air while vehicles are on the scene, that is a tremendous asset,” Evans said. “The quality of the cameras on the drones is great.”

Inexpensive devices can be purchased for far less than renting helicopters or paying for fuel for the flights, he said.

Evans said he is waiting for prices to drop a bit more.

When drones first became available several years ago, the cost was prohibitive, Davis said.

Smaller models are much more affordable.

“Most people think of the war-time usage of the much larger drones that send down a missile on a car or a house, but these are not much larger than a dinner plate,” Davis said.

But he wants to tread lightly until policies for usage are in place.

“I know there’s a national controversy going on about drones and privacy. That’s why if we decide to get any we’d have to set some guidelines,” Davis said.

Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills said Georgia lawmakers already started a conversation on privacy concerns during the last session.

“I’m sure they can pass necessary laws to deal with the abuse, if there is any, but there are no laws now to prevent me from flying over your house in a helicopter,” Sills said.

“I don’t see the issue that’s coming up about us spying on people. We can spy on them now, and we’re not doing it.”

Davis believes the debate will hinge on what people can see from the street or public property versus looking onto private land over a privacy fence.

“All the good video you get of illegal activity, if it gets thrown out in court, you’ve wasted your time,” he said. “If we have an active shooter, or a hostage situation, (drones) would come into play and be very beneficial to us.”

Sills said searching for people missing deep in the woods would be much easier with a drone outfitted with infrared cameras.

He feels law enforcement agencies should be able to fly drones anywhere they could fly a helicopter for surveillance.

“If they pass a law you can’t, then only rich police, who can afford a helicopter, can. If you’re poor police, you can’t.”

To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.