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APD to soon use drones to map fatal car crashes

Wednesday, August 29, 2018 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Drones are multipurpose: They can deliver pizzas and tally seals. Drones can fight wildfires and make aerial videos that garner pretty impressive watch counts on YouTube.

Drones can also map fatal car crashes, which is why the Austin Police Department recently doled out $10,468 to buy two of them.

“A fatal crash scene is unique in and of itself,” said APD Lt. Blake Johnson, who oversees the Vehicular Homicide Unit. “Time is of the essence.”

Using drones to capture data about fatal crashes is not uncommon. At least 910 emergency services departments in the U.S. are using them for this purpose, according to the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College.

Typically, officers use surveying tools, including lasers, to map and measure a scene, determine fault (if any) and decide whether charges should be filed. This process can take three hours, Johnson said.

With a drone, he said, the process can take 15 minutes.

“It will go up and fly a grid pattern,” he said, “capturing a series of photos and imagery, which we then download into a computer on the backside, at a desktop, and it makes a 3-D model of it.”

If police can map a scene faster, he said, roadblocks can be removed more quickly, officers spend less time at a crash scene (which may be on one side of a busy highway), and drivers face fewer slowdowns.

Plus, drone footage can be more accurate than on-the-ground mapping.

“If somebody’s loved one is killed by a drunk driver, they want that person held to justice, and this creates an excellent, excellent product for the ultimate crash reconstruction to bring to court,” Johnson said.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr./KUT.

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