How the Renton Police Department Uses Drones

Several years ago when the Renton Police Department first started using drones there was a lot of buzz around the potential they had to save time and money. Three years later their program serves as an example of a highly successful drone operation that has increased significantly in size and scope – helping in countless investigations, evidence collections, and even SWAT raids. I recently had the opportunity to work with officers from Renton PD and learned how their program works, as we repaired their drones.

One of the primary uses for these drones is mapping traffic accidents and crime scenes. The traditional method of documenting these incidents required multiple specialized officers to do photography, measurements, and evidence collection – requiring a considerable amount of time and resources. When accidents block roads or incidents happen after hours, the time it takes to survey the scenes results in lengthy traffic jams and expensive overtime pay. Now it takes just one or two officers and less than 30 minutes of drone time to generate a 3D map of a scene, take high resolution detailed images from any angle, and collect data that is needed for their records. The police use a program called Pix4D to generate small 3D maps detailed enough to contain measurement information.

In addition to mapping, the police have used drones to track suspects from the air in time critical operations. It is quite a bit cheaper, easier, and faster than running a helicopter and has successfully assisted in making arrests. The drones have also been used to investigate roof alarms that are difficult to access and to get information on an active burglary situation before a confrontation. The camera feed live streamed to the officers allows them to make informed decisions on crimes in less time than ever before. An officer I spoke with cited that a drone was recently used to locate a suspect in a home prior to a SWAT raid, allowing for a safe capture.

The drone fleet kept by the Renton Police spans several different models including the DJI Mavic, DJI Mavic 2 Pro / Enterprise, DJI Matrice 210, Autel X-Star / Evo, and 3D Robotics Solo.

While the drones have already saved Renton Police resources, not everyone is onboard with the deployment of drones by the police. They have faced some opposition over privacy concerns and potential for misuse of the technology for surveillance. The officer I spoke to believes the opposition is misinformed and assured me that the police do not use drones for surveillance. They train every officer in the program about proper use and how to use them to make routine operations more efficient.

While the program is one of the largest police drone operations in the state, this is just the beginning. The Renton program is continuing to grow with new equipment and more trained officers but they are not alone. Police departments across the country are beginning to develop and deploy programs to integrate drones. However, due to politics and public backlash, many police departments are currently prohibited from using drones or are struggling to get programs off the ground. In 2013 the Seattle Police Department gave up their drone program after fierce public backlash. While the technology still has a long way to go before widespread police adoption, it is something we are likely to see more of in the future as existing drone programs prove successful.