Eyes in the sky

by Keith Corcoran

In 2016, the Woodworth family contacted a couple of businesses looking for a master start code for a piece of machinery. While the Woodworth family had bought equipment from one of the companies previously, this particular machine wasn't among them. Worse still, a similar piece of machinery had gone missing off the company's lot in January.

Suspicious, one of the employees went to Zachary Woodworth's place on the Northfield Road, where he took pictures of the piece of equipment in question, and recorded its identification number before reporting the stolen item to police.

As integrated, specialized police units from King's County and the South Shore descended on Zach Woodworth's property, RCMP used a drone to survey the scene. Ultimately, they uncovered $300,000 in stolen machinery, including an all-terrain vehicle and a mini excavator.

It's just one of the ways Lunenburg and Queens police agencies are starting to employ drones in the fight against crime. Such images supplied from the airborne devices are providing Crown attorneys with compelling, photographic evidence that they can use to prosecute cases.

The public ordinarily refers to the device as a drone but police identify them as a more sophisticated Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS). The technological differences are not isolated to name and as one senior RCMP officer declared, they're not the units you can readily purchase at a big box electronics store. Depending on usage and capability the costs can range anywhere from $7,000 to $100,000-plus per unit.

The RPAS "are a cost-effective means of obtaining airborne high-definition photographs and video without using police aircraft," Cpl. Dal Hutchinson, a spokesman for the provincial RCMP, told LighthouseNOW in an email.

"They have proven highly effective for automobile crash scene investigations, traffic accident reconstruction, search and rescue, major crimes investigations and Emergency Response Team calls by providing superior quality imagery."

Queens District RCMP Staff Sgt. Derek Smith said the tool was used in the investigation of an ultralight plane crash June 5 near the airport in Greenfield. Smith and Steve MacQueen, the RCMP staff sergeant for the Lunenburg district, said their respective detachments have put drones in the air to probe traffic accidents in which people have died.

"Long story short is they are a valuable tool," Smith told LighthouseNOW in an email.

Nor is the Woordworth case the only one to make use of drones in the region. In May, an RPAS searched a Martins River area in Lunenburg County as part of a drug investigation. Two people are charged with crimes associated with the case and are due in court in July.

Lunenburg and Queens Counties are not alone when it comes to employing drones. They are becoming popular with police forces across the country. Prince Edward Island recently acquired four drones for their provincial RCMP detachments. And in Sudbury, Ontario, police there are lobbying to have drones added to their departments.

Josh Bryson, a local federal Crown attorney, hasn't yet dealt directly with a case involving police use of drones to gather evidence but suggested to LighthouseNOW he'd want specific answers from law enforcement to ensure in his mind it meets certain prosecutorial threshold tests.

"Section eight of the Charter permits everyone to be free from unreasonable search and seizure," Bryson said. "We have to be cognizant of that if we're employing technological means to capture images of ones person or their property; that it complies with the existing law."

Hutchinson said the RPAS is classified as aircraft and are regulated by federal legislation. "For a pilot to be authorized to operate a RPAS a Special Flight Operation Certificate must be obtained through Transport Canada," he explained to LighthouseNOW. "There is always two operators, one to pilot and one to observe."

Getting timely access to one of seven available drones isn't an issue.

"When I need one I simply call in our support services from [headquarters] and they ensure a drone and an operator are available to do whatever I need," MacQueen said.

The municipal police department in Bridgewater has yet to use one at the time of this writing, although they've explored the advantages of the technology. Acting Police Chief Scott Feener said there have been talks with the engineering department and volunteer fire department about the potential of buying one for town services.

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