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VPD buys drone fleet, says they won't be used for surveillance

Last Updated Sep 20, 2019 at 9:12 am PST

FILE - A drone is flown in a residential neighborhood in Upper Moreland, Pa., Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Matt Rourke

The VPD says it's likely the drones will also be used at the annual Celebration of Light fireworks festival

They will be used to help find missing people in wooded or difficult-to-reach spots

The drones will also be used for aerial views of crime scenes and collisions

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – The next time you go by the scene of a car crash or a major crime scene, you may see a police drone flying overhead.

The Vancouver Police Department has bought three of them and is hoping to put them into operation by the end of the year, after the Vancouver Police Board approved the idea at Thursday’s board meeting. The force has also bought an additional three to be used for training purposes.

The department says the drone policy has been in development for several months and it worked with stakeholder groups, including the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner and the BC Civil Liberties Association, to nail down details.

Drones in policing isn’t new. The RCMP, Abbotsford, Saanich Police and some police departments in Ontario already use them.

“We’re aware some citizens have raised privacy as a concern and we wanted to ensure residents of Vancouver that ethical and privacy considerations were top of mind in the development of this policy. All reasonable efforts will be made to avoid the capture of personal information that is not related to a specific investigation or flight purpose,” explains VPD Superintendent Steve Eely.

“Every time there’s a significant fatal accident, especially in inclement weather, if we can minimize the time spent on the ground and minimize the inconvenience to the public, I would say that would be an excellent opportunity to use a drone and not just document the scene accurately, minimize time for members, but free up traffic for the public.”

He adds any images that aren’t used for evidence purposes will be destroyed after 30 days and he stresses the drones won’t be used for surveillance purposes.

“Drones can be used for collision investigations. They will have the ability to capture video and photos of motor vehicle accident scenes from unique points of view that we otherwise could not access. We can use software to take that data and create scaled, 3D diagrams that can be used by investigators for court purposes. Drones can also be used to provide overviews of crime scenes and document fragile evidence like footprints or tire tracks prior to anyone even entering the scene.”

The VPD feels having access to this technology will make a huge difference when it comes to trying to get a breakthrough in an investigation.

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“The photos and videos captured may also reveal evidence that is not apparent to the human eye,” Eely says. “During a major event or natural disaster, the drones will be able to provide imagery that will give first responders situational awareness prior to entering a potentially hazardous scene. This can help ensure the deployment of resources in the most safe and efficient matter.”

Eely adds the drones will also be used to help find lost or missing people, especially in heavily wooded areas.

Seventeen members are completing the training and the hope is one of them will always be on shift if and when a drone is needed. But if that’s not the case, someone can be called in, he says.

“It’s a process to get qualified as a flight pilot and we have intentionally spread those pilots across multiple sections within the department including: patrol, our Emergency Response Section, our Collision Investigation Unit, etc. Our hope is they’re spread out enough that we’ll have a readily available pilot.”

The cost of using drones is much cheaper than putting a chopper in the air. Eely says the cost to buy the larger of the drones was upwards of $100,000, but some grant money helped cover the cost. It did, however, cost the department about $41,000 to purchase the two smaller units, the three training drones and to train members.

“Why we waited until this point – we did want to allow the technology to evolve and over time that technology cost has come down considerably. But also, Transport Canada was in the process of finalizing their regulatory scheme work and that really came to fruition and was implemented in just June of this year. That gave us an idea of what the requirements would be, which drones would qualify under Transport Canada guidelines, etc. The timing was intentional on our part.”

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The air space over Vancouver and some other parts of Metro Vancouver, is already really busy, but the VPD doesn’t think that will limit how often they can put the drones in the air. “Our pilots are undergoing extensive training right now. They’re fully aware of the need to contact YVR, harbour traffic, they’ll also be communicating with our duty officer and E-Comm as well. Everybody that’s affected will be consulted and informed,” says Eely.

Of the three drones, the larger unit will have forward-looking infrared capabilities.

The VPD says it’s likely the drones will also be used at the annual Celebration of Light fireworks festival.

“For peaceful protests there will be no use of drones. We respect people’s right to free speech and the right to protest, so that will not be something that will be on the table. I think we transition when we go to a large scale event like the Celebration of Light, where you have hundreds of thousands of people in a small area, public safety and officer safety concerns. So, again, it would not be used for surveillance purposes at all. It’s meant for documenting potential criminal activity.”

Eely says the privacy commissioner will be following up with the VPD, most likely in October, to make sure everything is on track.

As time goes on, Eely says the force will see if it is financially viable to expand the fleet.