Drones give MCSO a new way to solve crimes and save money

PHOENIX (FOX 10) -- The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office has a new way to try and solve crimes and keep the peace, and it comes with savings.

In August 2018, a protest outside of the 4th Avenue Jail in Downtown Phoenix saw dozens gather outside the lockup facility and calling on Sheriff Paul Penzone to stop working with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In the end, four were arrested in the mostly peaceful display. Up above, however, MCSO had an eye in the sky that may have looked a little different than normal.

"A group had assembled over by the 4th Avenue Jail and they had made themselves known, and just in case, we wanted to make sure we had a good overhead platform," said Lt. Brad Licking, who heads up the Maricopa County Sheriff's office Drone Program.

The relatively new division has certified drone pilots giving officers a new perspective.

"We've been out to everything from triple homicide scenes to fatal car wreck investigations. We've been asked to come out and do overhead shots for search and rescue, looking for people who were lost," said Lt. Licking.

MCSO has a drone training grounds near the Deer Valley Airport. At the facility, pilots use the machines, seamlessly working with one another, with the picture being beamed down to a monitor. In a real scenario, officers at the scene or in a command center could use the information to make split decisions during active scenes, or preserve an aerial view of a secured scene.

"We've even been called out recently to help one of the districts, they had some burglary suspects that had burglarized a home and bailed out of the vehicle on foot. They had taken one person in custody and requested us," said Lt. Licking. "When the pilot launched, he got some good overhead views and show the relationship between the victims home, where they bailed out of it, and where they were taken into custody so they can use that footage later in court."

When the program started, the drones were costly. Early generations could run more than $5,000, plus the cost of the camera. However, as technology advanced, prices came down, and MCSO's fleet has expanded.

"The technology is to the point now where you can get a much smaller package, keep it in the air longer, fly it and be able to capture the same quality of crime scene footage at a much-reduced rate, as opposed to using a helicopter," said Lt. Licking.

A typical MCSO helicopter launch can run the Sheriff's office $500 to $1,000 per hour, depending on the type of mission. The drone technology has been able to help with the department's bottom line.

"Depending on how long you're on-scene, you could literally have one scene that could pay for the drone itself," said Lt. Licking. "Anytime we're able to cut savings with the helicopter, we can put that into other programs, whether it's community outreach or something like that. It's obviously -- those monies we're able to shift to other things, we're able to do more for the public."

There are limitations, however. The drones won't be replacing helicopters anytime in the near future.

"The flight time is very reduced on these," said Lt. Licking. "At the most, depending on payload and temperature, we might get 25 to 35 minutes of flight time before we have to bring it back and put in a new battery. In a pursuit, that wouldn't work."

For now, it will be a cooperative effort in the air, helping to try and keep the peace on the ground.