K9s of the sky: How Springfield police have introduced drones into their daily operations

The Springfield Police Department recently introduced a FAA-certified drone department.
The Springfield Police Department recently introduced a FAA-certified drone department.

The rudders of a 10-pound, top-of-the-line drone began to spin shortly after dispatch received a call of an assault on North Glenstone Avenue in May, a case in which the suspect reportedly fled the scene of the violent incident on foot.

It had been just weeks since the Springfield Police Department had formally introduced its UAV (short for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) unit, and its sworn-in, FAA-certified drone officers believed the situation warranted an eye from the sky — a high-resolution camera with thermal-imaging capabilities — to help locate the suspect.

As the machine took flight and buzzed to the direction of a cellular signal from an officer on the ground, another officer observed the live feed from inside an SPD precinct. Their collective navigation, monitoring and communication led to a relatively swift apprehension.

Other recent SPD drone reports have included aiding in the location of missing children and deterring trouble by simply providing an aerial presence at locations where disturbances regularly occur.

All of it would have seemed like science fiction when SPD Capt. Eric Reece was given a badge in the 1990s. Now he sees drone use as the beginning of a major shift in police work.

He's embracing the change.

"This is without a doubt our future," said Reece, who oversees SPD's UAV unit. "Especially as the department struggles with staffing, we have to look to other ways to be efficient to calls of service, and this one of the things we're going to go to."

Drones have aided police in Springfield and throughout the country for several years, though often in lesser capacities. Crime-scene mapping was among the primary uses of the device.

As the technology has made rapid advances over the past decade, so have the techniques of law enforcement agencies. Last year SPD had the budget for a pair of DJI Matrice 30T drones, which run about $20,000 each between the device, controls and software.

The Springfield Police Department's new FAA-certified drone department currently uses a DJI Matrice 30T model.
The Springfield Police Department's new FAA-certified drone department currently uses a DJI Matrice 30T model.

Two Springfield police officers have since passed Federal Aviation Administration requirements to operate the drones. Per FAA regulation, one officer must be in physical proximity of the drone while the other observes the live feed remotely.

The goal, Reece said, is for the program to get to a consisten first-response level of drone usage, allowing the technology to get to a scene (i.e, a vehicle accident, missing child, or bank robbery) before a physical officer or first responder can get there.

With speeds of up to 54 mph and a max elevation of 400 feet (it can go higher in certain emergencies with FAA approval), and a flight-time of 45 minutes, the drone has the ability to get there much faster.

Many U.S. cities have docking/charging stations on top of buildings for their police drones, something SPD hopes to get in the future as its drone program matures. It's been deemed a cost-friendly alternative to police helicopters.

"They can cover so much more ground in an area than an officer on the ground," Reece said of the new drones. "It can clear a square mile in an instant."

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Days before this story was written, SPD submitted these two filings related to its drones:

Observation of Club Rodeo (Bar Close) – 2032 W Bennett St. – (No report) – Multiple dates: UAVU officer repeatedly observed the Club Rodeo Bar Close on various nights. Various minor incidents occurred which did not result in reports. The presence of the M30 with the police style-lighting activated seems to have had a persistent and positive effect on the patrons of Club Rodeo in that subjects clear the location quickly.

Burglary Residential – 652 S Campbell Ave – 24-15739 – (05/28/2024): UAVU officers were dispatched with others in response to a call of a residential burglary. UAVU officers deployed the M30 and monitored the logged address as officers processed the incident. Two subjects were apprehended and detained outside the address. UAVU officers continued to monitor the perimeter of the address while an SPD K-9 officer responded to the scene. UAVU officers later cleared the scene without further incident.

A view from a Springfield police drone's night vision during one of its recent assignments.
A view from a Springfield police drone's night vision during one of its recent assignments.

SPD said it recently set up a drone and officer near a stop light with a history of dangerous red-light runners and did a crowd watch at Street Rod Nationals last month at the Ozark Fairgrounds.

While police say the drones are another avenue to helping protect the community, it's also another way of keeping officers and first responders safe.

"When you're an officer and you're on the ground, it's harder to look and because there's a lot of places to hide. But when we put a drone up, it gives you that bird's eye view," Reece said. "A huge safety benefit. You can see someone hiding behind a bush or a wall."

Reports about police drones have noted that it acts as another officer body camera, too, which can help investigators solve cases, provide evidence for prosecutors to use in court and provide additional police accountability to make sure laws are enforced ethically.

While many people are glad to see another useful tool for law enforcement, others are dubious of a state-operated camera roaming the skies.

According to FAA regulations, Reece said, the cameras of the drones cannot point downward during its ascent and journey to its destination.

"We're not flying it to your window while you're eating lunch," he said. "They're for call of service, for situations if we had a helicopter, that's where it would be."

Ryan Collingwood covers a wide range of topics for the News-Leader with an emphasis on public safety. He can be reached by phone at 417-258-8174 and email at rcollingwood@news-leader.com. You can also follow Ryan on social media at X.com/rwcollingwood.

This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: How drones are changing Springfield police work: 'This is our future'