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Dothan police will soon have new technology in their toolbox to assist officers: drones.

The Dothan City Commission recently authorized the purchase of three high-tech drones — one for the DPD’s traffic division and two for patrol — for $18,898.

Lt. Scott Owns said the drones will help map and collect evidence at crash sites and find missing persons or persons of interest.

Owens said there are many operational advantages to having unmanned aerial systems.

“There have been a number of operations where a drone would have enhanced our safety on scenes,” he said. “In talking to others executive command staff, we’ve gone through those periods where we’ve said, ‘There’s got to be a better way to do this.’”

Typically, at the scene of a crash where there has been a fatality, officers will have to set up a “total station” that is essentially surveying equipment to take measurements — one point at a time — to map the site of the crash. Often, the data collected is used in court to support a case.

One drone, a Phantom 4 RTK Quadcopter, has the ability to accurately map a crash site in real time, taking pictures with altitude and location, and make a 3-D recreation of a crash.

Owens said the drone has a “very low margin of error” using GPS technology.

In addition to saving man hours, Owens said the biggest benefit of using drones will be to keep officers safer while working crashes on major highways or thoroughfares surrounded by high-speed, high-density traffic.

Patrol drones

Two other urban scout model drones will assist Dothan Police Department’s patrol unit track missing people, runaways, fugitives or other persons of interest.

It is equipped with cameras with infrared technology to track to body heat.

“It can help us with those lifesaving instances until we can get a helicopter in the air,” Owens said.

In tracking potential criminals or fugitives, the drone’s pilot can alert responding officers to a suspect’s exact location and can tell them whether the person is armed.

The Mavic 2 Dual Action Quadcopter also has a spotlight and attached speaker.

“In the case of a barricaded subject or someone who is suicidal, we don’t have to walk up to them; we can fly the drone to speak to them that way. Those are few of the utilizations we might actually use them for,” Owens said.

One of the drones will be assigned to day shift patrol while the other will be assigned to night shift.

Owens said at least one officer pilot will be trained and certified with the Federal Aviation Administration to operate the scout model drone on each shift, while everyone in the traffic division will eventually be trained to use the Phantom model.

“It’s an exciting project for us,” Owens said. “We always like new equipment that make our jobs more efficient, which is what these drones are going to do.”

Expanding uses

Owens said he sees the department’s use of drones to help with policing will grow over the next several years.

In New York, for example, drones can be sent to locations of disturbances to get eyes on the situation quickly and capture video footage — often before an officer can arrive.

Owens stressed that drones will not replace the public’s ability to see an officer face to face responding to low-risk situations. They might be used, however, in shootings or armed robberies.

The Police Department is not the first city department to use unmanned aerial aircraft.

In August 2019, Dothan Utilities purchased a drone to detect imminent power outages.

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