State troopers testing drones to speed up crash scene investigations

SHELTON, Wash. – The Washington state patrol is taking to the skies in an attempt to cut down on the time it takes troopers to investigate traffic accidents.

A handful of detectives are now learning to fly drones that the agency believes could save all of us time and money when investigators have to close down freeways during crashes.

On Thursday, the WSP invited Q13 News to see a demonstration of the agency’s training at its academy in Mason County.

“This is the latest and greatest that’s out there right now,” said Detective Eric Gunderson.

Detectives Kevin Nelson and Eric Gunderson practiced their unmanned aerial vehicle piloting skills at a mock crash scene. The two are some of the first of what could be several licensed and trained drone pilots at the state patrol.

The agency’s goal is to improve safety for troopers on the ground and cut down the time roads are closed for crash scene investigations.

“We’re trying to get these roadways open as quick as possible,” said WSP public information officer Kyle Moore. “We understand what it’s like to be in a backup, nobody wants to be in that.”

The drones, manufactured by Lockheed Martin, are fitted with Sony cameras and beefier components than what hobby drone pilots typically use.

“The motors on this machine rated at 10,000 hours where your typical hobby one is somewhere in the 100 to 200 hour range,” said Gunderson.

The state patrol has deployed three drones for detectives working from Marysville to Olympia for the pilot program.

“We’re training different detectives in those regions to use these UAV’s, take these pictures, roll them out during accident scenes and try to clear the collisions quicker,” said Moore.

Detectives say the drones are already making their job easier.

“We’ve already seen drastic improvements in road closure times,” Gunderson said.

The drones give detectives a bird’s eye view of crash scenes and once uploaded into a laptop, the data reveals precise measurements for investigators.

And, troopers insist, the drones won’t be used to eavesdrop.

“We ran this through the ACLU,” said Moore. “It’s not looking in on people. This is just taking pictures and pictures of the collision scene.”

The devices are already being used by several Puget Sound police departments; both Kent and Renton law enforcement agencies fly UAV’s, but drones are a first for state troopers.

“You still have to do the same police work but this way it just makes it more efficient, makes it easier,” said Moore.

If the drone pilot program is a success the ultimate goal is for the state patrol to roll out a total of nine UAV's across the state.