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Using Drones in Forensic Mapping. A Microdrones Podcast


Meet Your Newest Member of Law Enforcement: Drones.

There’s never a lack of interest in what can be done with a drone," said Rick Rayhel, sales manager for Microdrones. Here on Propelling, a Microdrones podcast, we’ve experienced the same sentiment, exploring UAVs used for all sorts of innovative purposes. Today, we highlighted their role in crime and crash scene analysis.

Though new to this market, drones are making waves in their new role in law enforcement, saving communities thousands of dollars and collecting evidence with startling accuracy. To expand upon the use of drones in this capacity is a full panel of professionals: Rick Rayhel, sales manager at Microdrones, along with Steve McKinzie, owner of CSI Mapping, Curt Haberlach, reconstructionist for McKinzie & Associates, and Kris Keberlein, accident reconstructionist for McKinzie & Associates.

Anyone who has ever caught an episode of CSI will recognize the roll of yellow measuring tape often used by agents. But this archaic form of mapping is on its way out as UAV’s arrive on the scene, taking measurements more accurately, faster, and more efficiently. McKinzie, a 20-year veteran of forensic mapping, explained how holes in the industry brought about a technological revolution.

A demand for accurate, shareable data was the impetus behind bringing drones onto a crime scene. With drone data determining courtroom verdicts, clean and indisputable evidence was a necessity. Give this panel discussion a listen to hear more on the use cases, impact and future of drones in law enforcement.

A New UAV Market: Forensic Mapping
One of the most surprising new market's emerging for UAVs is crime and crash scene analysis. In this episode of Propelling we examine this market and how drones are making an impact.  Steve McKinzie, owner of CSI Mapping, has some particular thoughts on this subject. He explains, “UAS are our multipurpose tool for crime and crash scenes. Not only are they useful in the photogrammetry aspect of their application, but those photographs are key to the generation of maps using photogrammetry.”

Steve and his team at CSI Mapping are able to use the orthomosaic images in the courtroom. This gives jurors a real birds eye view of what the CSI investigator or the witnesses are talking about during testimony. Additionally, the investigator makes use of the geometry from the photogrammetry in their analysis.

“The additional contribution that a UAS makes is really unseen,” says McKinzie. “Crime scenes and vehicular crashes are disruptive to free movement of our citizens. So, these incidents create detours or in some cases they simply trap vehicles on the highway with no way to escape around the incident. This is detrimental to the economy and in the areas where these events take place. Furthermore, on a national scale, the amount of dollars we're talking about are just enormous. So, our ability to reduce on-scene time, using this technology, is really beneficial to everyone.

That’s one of the many benefits that comes from utilizing a drone at an accident or crime scene. The UAV allows law enforcement to cover a large area rather quickly and re-open the roadway in less time. Kris Keberlein, accident reconstructionist for McKinzie & Associates, is also afforded a safer space to operate.

“The drones also allow the investigators to safely do their job without being anywhere near the roadway or on the roadway,” Keberlein explains. “On your large crime scenes, you can certainly document an area much more quickly and get that area open back up to the public in a timelier fashion.”

In addition to the speed, another big impact from the drone is getting the ability to capture evidence from an entirely new perspective. “I've spent time in a ladder truck, with the fire department, trying to get up above a scene and taking a top down view,” says Curt Haberlach, a reconstructionist for McKinzie & Associates. “That process takes so much time and manpower and safety harnesses and briefings and approval from higher ups. Also, it's not available to everybody and even then, you're limited on the perspective that you get. Well, with the drone we can go just about anywhere and capture from just about any angle.”

Adding drones into the workflow of forensic mapping not only improved the accuracy of the data collected, it was also a method to improve the presentation of that data in a more professional and accurate manner.

“That's what we were really after,” explains McKinzie. “You can understand how a computer-generated diagram is more professional than a hand drawn sketch. Today, we can provide a real, to-scale orthomosaic of the crime scene. We have geometry with that as well, that solves so many problems that we never had the opportunity to solve in the past.”

Collecting Evidence

Utilizing a drone on site helps make sure that all pieces of evidence are documented and documented properly.  “One of the nice thing about the drone,” says Keberlein, “is that you fly over a scene and take a multitude of pictures which help alleviate some of that problems we've seen over the years.”

The final product, when you map with a drone, is a detailed mosaic image of the entire area, where you can see the actual evidence, not just a representation of it. Since images can also be used to create point clouds at the same time, you get more final products. “You don't just get a diagram,” says Haberlach. “You get a point cloud visualization without having to use multiple pieces of equipment or multiple different methods to collect the same data. The drone flies overhead capturing all the data, collecting 1,000s or even millions of points in a short period of time.”

Recently, Haberlach mapped an intersection, in the middle of farm country, with crops on all four corners. The main issue was to investigate the site distance of the roadways approaching the intersection and determine if the vehicles could see each other as they approached.

To answer that question, Haberlach had to map 1,000s of square feet of crop fields to create an accurate 3D model of the terrain. “The drone allowed me to map a huge area in a very short period of time,” he explained. “It was also able to create an accurate representation of the height and visibility of the crops themselves rather than the ground underneath it.”

Having all this information helps to make the crime or crash scene easier to understand and dissect, both for the trained officials working the scene, and for the court room. “Prior to drone use,” says McKinzie, “your presentation was always a two-step process. First you had to explain your evidence, and then you needed to show a picture of what it looked like. You basically had geometry in one hand and a photograph in the other."

Visualizing a crime scene can be difficult for jurors. However, this technology creates data that can helps people understand spatial relationship between pieces of evidence or objects or people even at a crime scene or an accident scene.

“That's what makes this such a beautiful presentation tool in the courtroom,” says McKinzie. “We're not trying to take the responsibility out of anybody else's hands. The judge is the gatekeeper of the truth. He's the one that protects the jury and makes sure that they hear reliable scientific information. This technology makes it easier for everybody in this process.”

IMSMAP360 CAD Screenshot

Benefits of Drones over an Accident Scene
When you're looking at drones for crash site reconstruction or forensic analysis, there's benefits of being able to get to a site, cover more area, continue the flow of traffic and keeping law enforcement out of harm’s way.

“There's never a lack of interest or ideas of what can be done with a drone,” said Rick Rayhel. “One of the benefits we’ve seen for the law enforcement agencies utilizing UAVs on site is reducing the amount of overtime needed for crash reconstruction. There's an emerging market for UAVs as well as the forensic mapping applications. But we're only going to see this technology adopted more often by agencies as we see the benefits come to fruition.”

The economic considerations can add up quickly between personnel, accident scene reconstruction, and travel related costs created by closures.  “Time spent on the scene is one of the biggest monetary costs associated with forensic mapping,” says Haberlach. “You've got a number of people on a scene. The time it takes for them to be there, what your you're spending in the manpower is going to outweigh the equipment costs. So, it really does come down to reducing the amount of time that you spend on scene.”

Integrating drones into forensic mapping help to collect data more efficiently and safely while cutting costs, saving time, and converting data into useful information. “The technology that we have that's coming out of the UAS industry is just phenomenal,” says McKinzie. “It's this system's ability to document evidence with advanced clarity with high resolution photogrammetry. And then the exceptional mapping that comes from that photogrammetry. Also, mdCockpit, the software that's used for mission planning and execution at these incidents sites is about as easy to use as any crime scene tool I've ever seen. It really amazing. And it doesn't take any more than the end of your finger on a tablet to tell it what to do. And it's very, very reliable.”

Integrated systems from Microdrones are providing law enforcement agencies with a full solution for collecting and analyzing data at crime or accident scenes. The accuracy and reliability along with the final deliverables, provide compelling presentations that make it easier to visualize a crime scene. “Remember, the outcome of what we're documenting may very well affects somebody’s freedom,” says McKenzie. “So, we're very, very careful in assuring the accuracy of the work that we produce and how we train people to produce that work.”

For more information on integrating Microdrones into your workflow, CLICK HERE to speak with one of our helpful representatives.