Enhancing Crime Scene Capabilities with Quadcopter Systems
Written by Danny Eylon   

When working an outdoor crime scene, law enforcement agencies face several concerns. Foremost among those concerns is the need to map or reconstruct a scene; to create an image of the scene for later use; and to mark each and every piece of evidence in a meticulous way. All of this must be done quickly, since in many cases there is an urgency to re-open main traffic routes or public areas. Particularly where car accidents are concerned, a quick accident reconstruction can result in a quicker clearance of the scene. And after leaving the scene, all of that documentation needs to be easily shared with non-agency parties such as officers of the court and service providers, such as insurance agencies.


Answering the concerns mentioned above can be done efficiently by using quadcopter systems accompanied by the right software tools. Quadcopters equipped for scene documentation are high-tech, state-of-the-art systems. Applications for these systems have been evolving rapidly over the past few years, so an organization wishing to explore the use of a quadcopter-and maximize the potential for optimal performance and return on investment-must face the following considerations:

1) Airborne platforms are improving their performance at a rate of one generation per year.
2) New and sophisticated software applications are upgraded and released at a rate of one generation per quarter.
3) Ongoing regulations and licensing considerations prompt the near constant release of new rules and limitations.
4) An organization must have well-trained pilots who can keep up with the advancement in professional applications and the rapid pace of change in the technology.

How to Tackle the Issue of Constant Change
Based on the above-mentioned background issues, an agency should consider a "structured-phase" approach that ensures spiral development of capabilities, along with incremental acquisition of assets that result in a "best-value" solution. The diagram below illustrates this gradual implementation, which will assure a growing footprint of capabilities, along with acquisition of matching hardware and software.

Stepping Stones
Following the conceptual diagram above, here is a detailed explanation of each phase and its required steps.

Preliminary Phase
During the preliminary phase, your agency should work to define its needs and prepare a concept for what it hopes to achieve with a quadcopter system. It is recommended to perform a careful analysis that will result in an operational-requirement document for the desired system. Questions to be answered include:

  • What types of missions will the quadcopter cover?
  • What data must the system collect, and what are the specifications for data format, quantity, resolution, and accuracy?
  • What environmental conditions will the quadcopter system encounter (e.g. wind, rain, extreme temperatures)?
  • What terrain will the system cover? Will it be deployed primarily in large, open, and rural areas or smaller, more densely populated, and urban areas?
  • How long must the system's range be? What are your requirements for time to station and time on station?
  • What sort of command and control do you require (e.g. local, remote, or combined)?
  • What sort of deployment type do you require (e.g. fixed, mobile, relocatable, etc.)?
  • How much manpower will you require for operation, maintenance, analysis, and reporting?

Based on the operational-requirement document, a system-requirement document must be prepared. The issues addressed in this document include hardware and software specifications; quantity of systems; manpower allocations; and budget.

Once the preliminary work has been completed, the specification requirements and the resulting acquisition should be addressed in a three-phase program (Basic, Advanced, and Growth Potential). This approach is essential to handling the changing technical and operational environment of the quadcopter world.

Phase One: Basic (First Year)
This is the baseline phase for quadcopter operations that will enable essential but limited operations. Capabilities will include:

1) Quadcopters: Up to four single-operated quadcopters with day cameras. Each quadcopter will be operated individually by pilots upon request, at different sites and for different tasks. No coordination or exchange of information between these sites is required. The payload daylight camera images will be downlinked to the operator ground station and stored on its memory device.

2) Photographic Capabilities: In order to assure accurate pictorial data (resolution, angle, coverage, format, etc.), the quadcopter system has to be instrumented with appropriate camera operating software, downlink, and storage. Most quadcopter manufacturers provide these capabilities upon request.

3) Basic Command and Control: No command or control assets for higher echelon data sharing and/or decision making are required in this phase. All decisions should be made on-scene and reported off-line.

4) Vehicle-Mounted GCS: The quadcopter carrying case, GCS (ground control station), cables, and accessories will be packaged into the patrol car using dedicated brackets and mounting accessories to assure safe and secure driving and operating conditions.

5) Pilot Training and Licensing: To comply with FAA licensing requirements and to assure quadcopter and camera performance, the operator/pilot must be trained and licensed. To this end, training facilities and procedures shall be prepared and a standard licensing process should be in accordance with FAA requirements. A standard ratio of 1.5 pilots per platform should be used for more than two quadcopters (or two pilots in the case of one quadcopter).

6) Flight Planning: For optimal camera coverage and picture-taking abilities, the quadcopter flight path must be carefully planned and executed. Pre-planning an optimal flight plan and executing it can be ensured using available software.

7) 3D GIS: For crime-scene analysis and documentation, optimal camera data must be collected and downlinked from the quadcopter. Converting data into 3D GIS data- including geolocation and 3D measuring capabilities-is the baseline for analysis and documentation.

8) Pilot and Drone Log Book: Each airborne mission, platform, and pilot has to be documented in an official logbook. This will include maintenance and licensing data.

Phase Two: Advanced
After successful implementation and operation of the "Basic" phase, upgrading to "Advanced" phase is suggested in order to realize the full quadcopter capabilities and enhancements. These upgrades and advanced needs will include:

1) Quadcopters: Move from up to four quadcopters to as many as ten, operated individually by pilots upon request at different sites and tasks. The cameras will be equipped with day/night cameras to extend their data-gathering capabilities. As with the Basic phase, this assumes no coordination or exchange of information and data between the sites where the quadcopters are operating is required, and the camera images will be downloaded to the operator ground station and stored on its memory device.

2) Photographic Capabilities: In the Advanced phase, cameras will be upgraded to include night capabilities. Most quadcopter manufacturers do not provide dual day/night capabilities, so special attention should be given when specifying your agency's needs.

3) Fleet Management Command and Control: A ten-unit quadcopter fleet, operated at different sites by separate teams, requires coordination of time and space. In some cases, even air-traffic coordination will be necessary. In order to streamline those assets, a software package assisting the coordinating echelon is strongly suggested.

4) Database Management: Data collected from sites, including photographic data, 3D and GIS data, flight data, logbook data, and all resulting reports and documentation will accumulate and need to be handled so that retrieval is possible. Software solutions exist to help facilitate and streamline these needs.

5) Multivehicle Mounted GCS: Quadcopter and associated GCS and accessories need to be interchangeable, so that any GCS can operate any quadcopter in the fleet. Hardware and software must be modified to provide this flexibility, and logbook reports need to reflect this option.

6) Pilot Refresh and Advance Training: For pilots to maintain their licenses, they need to periodically refresh and requalify. In addition, pilots need to be trained and licensed to use advanced payloads, quadcopters, and software applications.

Phase Three: Growth Potential
This third phase is an indication of where the future might take us. Added capabilities might include:

1) Multiplatform-Operated Quadcopters: Airborne platforms (one or more quadcopters carrying one or more sensors) and missions assigned to each platform will allow undefined quantities of platforms, each tasked to perform several missions. Acquisition and specifications of hardware shall reflect this capability.

2) Multiplatform and Autonomous Flight: Quadcopters operating autonomously in swarms will require special-purpose command and control, as well as flight-planning software.

About the Author
Danny Eylon is a business development consultant for Skytech Systems in Israel. He has more than 40 years of experience in engineering, engineering management, state-of-the-art technology, business development, and leading of integrated systems programs.

This article appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Evidence Technology Magazine.

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