Wellesley Police Department adds drones to its ranks

The Wellesley Police Department has been mulling use of unmanned aerial vehicles (aka, drones) for some time, but the high cost and equipment shortcomings delayed WPD ‘s investment. Recent incidents, though, provided the department with motivation to buy in and coincided with improvements in UAV battery life, maneuverability, and prices.

One such situation involved a missing elderly man with dementia who walked away from his home on a bitter cold day and could not be located for a couple of hours. Wellesley Police started reaching out to other agencies to send UAVs to assist in the search, and had a State Police helicopter responding as well, as the search headed into darkness (fortunately an alert neighbor spotted the man).

“All of these assets were going to take time to get to us,” says Deputy Chief Scott Whittemore.  “Had we had our UAVs at the time, we felt we would have located him immediately, as he was only about 500 yards from his house (as the crow flies).”

The department has now invested in 5 UAVs (cost: approximately $28K), including 2 consumer-type DJI Mini 3 Pros used for training and daylight video/photography, and 2 commercial-grade DJI Mavic 3 Enterprise Thermal UAVs that will be used for day and night searches as well as traffic crash reconstruction and investigation.  The fifth UAV is a professional-grade DJI Matrice 30 that can fly in any weather and for a longer time than the others.

WPD is also investing in training, as officers need to get their Federal Aviation Administration Part 107 commercial remote pilot license to operate the UAVs. These officers will also train with other agencies that have experience using drones for law enforcement. The department has 17 officers that are going to be remote pilots (2 already had their licenses and 6 others have obtained them so far).

Evolving FAA regulations, which had been very restrictive from the start, have made police use of UAVs more realistic, Whittemore says.

Using UAVs

The Wellesley Police Department is 1 of many local government agencies to extend the long arm of the law hundreds of feet into the sky to support their work, as shown via an ACLU search tool released at the end of 2021. Nearby, the Wayland Police Department uses drones, as does the Sheriff’s office in Dedham. Natick’s GIS Department uses one, too.

WPD plans to use its UAVs for a variety of purposes, including search and rescue, crime scene photography, and reconstructing accident scenes. The police will work with other departments in town, from fire to facilities, as needs for drone use arise. The gear is especially useful for putting eyes on hard-to-reach areas.

“Having a shared resource across Town government allows everyone to benefit and maximize our FAA-certified remote pilots and UAVs,” Whittemore says.

The police department almost immediately seeks to head off concerns about it launching a UAV program in its new promotional video (see below), in which the narrator says “Now understandably, the words ‘police drone’ can cause some to worry about privacy rights or military-type surveillance…”

The department has published a policy and procedure document that we’ve embedded at the bottom of this post.

Whittemore says that so far WPD has used drones to film its video about getting a new electric vehicle, for photographing a couple of significant vehicle crashes, for an investigation into a break-in at a commercial apartment building under construction. WPD was testing equipment in December when it had its first call for the UAVs, to search for a missing person who was suicidal.

“There have also been times when we respond to home burglaries in progress and have fleeing suspects in the neighborhood, or in the woods. Having UAVs be able to scout out the areas, especially at night, is much safer and more efficient than trying to have officers and K-9’s work a large area on foot,” Whittemore says. “The UAV isn’t going to solve every situation, but at the very least, we can rule out areas, and concentrate our resources more efficiently.”

Wellesley resident Michael Tobin, a recreational drone flyer for the last 6 years, is enthusiastic about WPD’s foray into UAVs.

“I’ve come to see the many advantages this new ‘tool’ provides. I’ve used the drone for a new vantage point of taking videos of the kids boogie boarding the waves on vacation, for providing unique aerial tours of the Wellesley Conservation Land Trust sanctuaries and Wellesley Town open spaces in never seen perspectives, and for capturing the unique moments and views of the WHS Class of 2020 graduation parade during the pandemic,” Tobin says. “With my experience of the flying video ‘platform,’ I can see the benefits for search and rescue in dangerous locations (e.g. over thin ice of our ponds and lakes), assessing a situation like a large building fire, as well as simple things like roof inspections.”

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