On the roof of a Longmont FirstBank, a suspect on the run from police was at last spotted.
That September night, a man, who would later be identified as Augustus Cropp, 21, rode an ATV throughLongmont in an alleged crime spree, first threatening people with a weapon that would later be determined to be a BB gun. Police said Cropp also attempted to steal a delivery truck, broke into a house and stole clothes and trespassed at the bank, where an employee saw him and called police.
Rather than sending police up to the roof in search of Cropp, Longmont police Sgt. Jason Malterud said they first piloted a drone to the his location to provide a complete picture of the situation.
“We actually didn’t have to put anybody on the roof, which is very unsafe for the suspect and for us,” Malterud said. “We could put the drone up there and look. We saw him and gave him commands. He complied and came down to us.”
If not for the drone, Malterud said police likely would have had to contact the fire department for a ladder truck. The situation is one of many in which public safety officials have used unmanned aerial systems to assist in operations.
The high-flying technology has ushered in a new era of crime fighting and rescue techniques. With drones at their disposal, authorities have located suspects fleeing from justice, found missing people in the wilderness and been able to capture invaluable information in a short span of time.
Malterud, who leads the Longmont Police Department’s drone program, has seen firsthand how the technology makes police jobs safer.
Drones became available to Longmont police about two years ago and the department has four in its arsenal, providing police with visual intelligence and a high-tech eye for locating suspects on the run.
For example, a suspect fleeing Longmont police hid in a wooded area, Malterud said. Canines searched the area to no avail, but a drone’s thermal technology, which detects heat, was able to pin down the man’s location.
“We would have probably walked away and never caught him, without that technology,” Malterud said.
In the Longmont Police Department’s traffic unit drone, technology can provide a complete overview of major crashes. The images captured provide more details and visual understanding than a 2D picture, Malterud said.The technology also helps in search and rescue operations, as well as capturing aerial crime scene photos and the aftermath of traffic crashes, which Malterud said can provide useful information during court proceedings and jury trials.
Three Longmont officers are licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly the drones. Malterud said three more officers are preparing to take the test to receive their license, with the department’s overall goal being to have an officer who can fly a drone on duty at all times.
Police aren’t the only ones the drones can help protect from danger. Drones also provide visual cover for the departments canines, according to Malterud.
At the Boulder Police Department, Detective Sgt. David Spraggs said the department has been utilizing drone technology since 2017.
Spraggs is the program manager for the department’s unmanned aerial system, which includes seven drones and eight licensed pilots. The fleet has the capability to provide thermal technology imaging, a loudspeaker, the ability to carry up to 10-pounds and spotlight capabilities that can light up an area as large as a football field from 400 feet above the ground.
As of Oct. 9, Spraggs said the department had flown 40 missions across a variety of scenarios from traffic accident mapping to search and rescue operations. Over the summer, drone technology helped to locate a suicidal man in Boulder Canyon. Another man in need of welfare check was also spotted trespassing in various north Boulder backyards.
Dead and Company fans that pack Folsom Field and athletes who run in the Bolder Boulder are also likely to catch a glimpse of the sky-high technology, which Spraggs said is deployed during special events to give police a live stream for operational planning.
Police work that used to take hours of photography and videography can now be captured in 20 minutes.
“In years past we used to go up in manned aircraft with long lenses to capture aerial crime scene images,” Spraggs said. “Or we would have to climb up the 100-foot fire truck ladder to capture an overhead perspective. We can now launch a drone and capture incredible photos and videos in a matter of minutes.”
When a 17-year-old escaped Lookout Mountain Detention Facility, the Boulder Police Department assisted Golden officers in the search, clearing 20 buildings in 90 minutes.
“The implementation of UAS technology has been incredible,” Spraggs said. “Drone use has increased the efficiency of police services, as well as helping to keep the public safe and police officers safe. We are very careful to use the drones in a safe, prudent manner with due regard for ‘public perception’ surrounding drones and privacy implications.”
Erie and Louisville police departments do not have drones at this time. Louisville police chief Dave Hayes, said that the department has not had to use drones, but that partner agencies would likely lend the equipment if needed. In Weld County, the Firestone Police Department also utilizes drone operations.
With Colorado amassing an additional 80,000 people to its population in 2017 and the state recognized as the seventh fastest growing in the nation, more people are spending their free time exploring the mountains and open spaces — increasing the chance of people becoming lost, hurt or stranded.
Boulder Emergency Squad Capt. Ryan Singer described drones as an important supplement to search and rescue workers on the ground. The nonprofit partners with local fire departments and the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office, providing drone technology when needed.
“If we can do more with less that is always a positive,” Singer said. “(Drones) will never replace (or) be the sole thing that does search and rescue … but it provides that value add to enhance other capabilities.”
The Boulder Emergency Squad began working with drones about six years ago, though Singer said drones weren’t used in the field until 2016, following pilot training. So far this year, the squad has flown 25 drone missions and responded to 124 incidents.
In a white truck marked Boulder Emergency Squad, rescuers can station the mobile technology lab in Boulder County’s most remote fringes. Here, they can analyze drone images gathered in the field, in addition to a number of other rescue tasks.
From up to 400 feet in the air, the drones can take in canyons and forests, helping rescuers to pick out differences in the natural landscape. Singer said these images give rescuers the ability to carefully comb an area, without having to exhaust workers on the ground.
“I could put (the drones) back through that area a second time, three times, four times,” Singer said. “I can just review those images and process them and look for those anomalies that (you) might not see the first time or in the heat of the moment running that mission.”
Much like they do for Longmont police, Singer said drones reach areas that would be dangerous for people to try and get to, like cliff overhangs.
Drone technology, however, is far from perfect. The machines, while high tech, are sensitive to inclement weather and can withstand only a light snow or drizzle. There are also FAA visibility minimums with which pilots must comply. Thermal technology is also less useful in picking up on human body heat, when the ground is hot.
This technological sensitivity can call on operators to make tough decisions about putting pricey equipment up in the air.
“If there is the potential that it could save a life by putting this up in a little bit of drizzle, maybe that’s a risk we take,” Singer said. “The environment we work in is very challenging. We have canyons and we have heavy timber, which makes utilization of (drones) a challenge. While it provides value, until some magical solution is provided by some company, it will never be a one-stop solution.”
Drones making up the fleet owned by the Boulder Emergency Squad vary in price from $1,000 to $30,000, depending on individual technology features. While acknowledging the cost, Singer also said deploying a drone is more cost effective than a helicopter.
The squad is largely funded through a county contract to provide technical rescue services in Boulder County. Grants and some city funding also aid in funding the resource. The staff is made up entirely of volunteers, including Singer.
“That’s one of the great benefits as a squad. We don’t just have this one little district. We go everywhere in Boulder County, wherever they need help. If we invest $30,000 in drones, then we can share that resource.”
Drone missions flown by Boulder Emergency Squad
- Total Incidents for BES: 132
- Total Missions with UAS Use: 19
- Total Incidents for BES: 90
- Total Missions with UAS Use: 10
- Total Incidents for BES: 124
- Total Missions with UAS Use: 25