Modesto police give demonstration of three drones

Modesto police show drone aircraft

The Modesto Police Department gives a demonstration of its unmanned aerial vehicles in the parking lot at Vintage Faire Mall. Deke Farrow/
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The Modesto Police Department gives a demonstration of its unmanned aerial vehicles in the parking lot at Vintage Faire Mall. Deke Farrow/

In discussing and demonstrating its three unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, on Tuesday morning, Modesto police emphasized that the camera-equipped, remote-controlled aircraft are eyes in the sky, not spies in the sky.

The drones will not be used for random surveillance, said Lt. Ivan Valencia and Sgt. David Mullins. “If we’re in open public space where we have the right to be anyway, there’s no search warrant required ever,” Valencia said. “But if we want to fly over somebody’s house, yes,” a search warrant would be needed, in keeping with people’s right to privacy.

This is not a secret program; this is not random surveillance. These are directed. You’ll know we’re there, no different than if we deploy a canine in an area. You’re going to know the police are there and they’re looking for somebody.

Sgt. David Mullins, Modesto Police Department

The aircraft are flown under strict Modesto Police Department policy written in conjunction with Federal Aviation Administration rules on deployment, Mullins said. Prescribed uses include executing search warrants; assisting other agencies; responding to biological, chemical, radiological or nuclear crises; civil disturbances; dignitary protection; disaster management; situational awareness; crime-scene documentation; gang and homicide investigations; and search and rescue.

Last month, for example, the county’s water rescue team was unable to get a boat into a stretch of river to assess a situation, so it asked the Police Department to deploy one of its UAVs.

An aircraft also could be used much like a dog is sent into a backyard to locate suspects hiding there.

And in documenting criminal and fatal collision cases, prosecutors typically want to re-create the scenes in court for jurors, Valencia said. The UAVs capture an aerial view that complements ground-level photographs.

Each UAV’s mapping system records where it is flying. A return-to-home feature brings the aircraft back to its launching point if its battery is running low.

The pilot UAV program launched in late April for about $5,000 – the cost of three aircraft and the iPads to control them. The drones are manufactured by DJI. Two are Phantom 4 models, the third is the bigger Inspire 1, which Valencia said can carry a heavier payload of different types of cameras. The Inspire also is much more stable in windy conditions, he said.

The drone program was endorsed Monday by the City Council’s Great Safe Neighborhoods Committee. It next will be presented to the full council, though Chief Galen Carroll noted the program does not require council approval.

The program is in its training stage. The department cannot fly the aircraft after dark, and is keeping them under 400 feet in altitude so as not to interfere with any full-size aircraft.

The department already had in its ranks three licensed pilots: Officer Jessica Smith, Investigator John Moss and Lt. Jason Grogan. The long-term goal is to expand to eight to 10 aircraft and have 10 to 12 trained pilots.

The FAA is trying to catch up to this technology. Two months ago, it was very skewed. You could be a hobbyist, buy a UAV from an electronics store, pay your $5 FAA fee and be able to fly. But if you were a public agency like us or a commercial business trying to do same thing, you had to have ground school ... almost the exact same thing as being a pilot. They’re trying to balance those things now, make it a more level playing field.

Lt. Ivan Valencia, Modesto Police Department

Future pilots won’t have to be FAA-licensed for full-size aircraft, as Smith, Moss and Grogan are, Mullins said. “The program with the FAA is being altered in that it’s moving the standards (for UAV operation) to a remote pilot certificate, which should happen in August.” In the meantime, the department’s three pilots can train other officers on UAVs. “Once the new rule goes into effect, we can bring those pilots aboard,” the sergeant said.

UAVs are a “force multiplier,” department officials say. When searching for a suspect, for example, the cameras can cover what in the same amount of time would require four or five officers, Mullins said.

Another plus is they’re quick and easy to deploy. To get a helicopter crew notified, in the air and to north Modesto, he said, could take 30 minutes. With a UAV, it’s just switch it on and go.

Not that drones can replace full-size aircraft, Valencia said. They’re very limited in range – they must stay within the pilot’s sight – so they can’t pursue a fleeing car. They also have battery life of only about 25 minutes.

Flying one of the UAVs in the parking lot at Vintage Faire Mall on Tuesday, Moss got it up to about 75 feet altitude and 100 feet out before it lost its remote connection and returned to its launch site, he said.

The UAV program came about, Mullins said, because the department had been researching purchase of a fixed-wing aircraft. “That program came to halt for various reasons,” he said, “so after that, we decided to look around for other options.”

Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327