Drones helping DPS investigators reconstruct incident scenes

PHOENIX (FOX 10) -- There's a new tool to help investigators at crime scenes.

The Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) is now using drones to provide a better view, and the technology is helping investigators piece together scenes, using a view they've never had before.

In November 2018, a late-night drag race between two Mercedes led to a multi-car wreck on the I-17, near Northern Avenue. A driver of a compact car was seriously hurt, and the freeway was shut down well into daylight hours, and one of the ways DPS investigators put the scene back together was a drone.

Trooper Brian Hon helped pioneer the DPS Drone Program. He's a certified drone pilot who's using the technology to help at crime scenes.

"We'll do our measurements on the scene, just like we normally would, and we'll go back and look at the drone imagery we took, and there are tire friction marks that weren't visible on ground level but we could clearly see from up above," said Trooper Hon.

DPS has been actively using drones at scenes for about a year. It starts with mapping out an area, and DPS has done this on highways and in neighborhoods before. With the flight plan set through a tablet that communicates with the drone, it's time for takeoff and the drone gets to work.

"As it goes, it's taking pictures along that pre-designated grid path it has," said Trooper Hon.

The flying robot then goes in a circular pattern around a scene and takes more photos, every 10 degrees, to make sure DPS gets a complete picture. Then, it's time to bring it in for a landing, and use the information collected in the investigation. That is something that Trooper Hon says is definitely an asset.

"We've done vehicular reconstructions using measurements taken purely from this imagery, and I believe they are currently going to court," said Trooper Hom.

DPS has different drones it can use for scenes, along with its other eye in the sky, their helicopter. However, some of the drone imagery is providing a perspective they've never seen before.

"Video game designers are using the same type of software to create their video game worlds, and we could do that with our crime scenes now, with our collision scenes," said Trooper Hon. "So for jury presentations or families of victims, we can present that as an item we've collected from the scene."

It's still unknown if or how the images can be used in court, because the technology is so new. DPS says they'll have a better idea of that, as the first cases begin to use some of the drone pictures.