From debris-strewn parking lots, police Sgt. Brook Rollins deftly piloted a camera-equipped quadcopter high above the ground to provide city leaders a bird’s-eye view of Arlington Baptist College and other buildings heavily damaged by Thursday’s powerful storm.
Those images, captured Friday with permission from the private property owners, were provided to Arlington’s Emergency Operations Center to help city leaders prioritize areas of storm cleanup and determine what resources may be needed to restore affected neighborhoods, said Lt. Christopher Cook, an Arlington police spokesman.
“A lot of times, our damage assessments comes from field personnel on the ground. They are able to use camera equipment to shoot up but you really can’t tell how extensive the damage is without getting a bird’s eye view,” Cook said. “A bird’s-eye view helps us, whether it’s with a traffic accident reconstruction or in a Mother Nature incident like straight-line winds.”
The Arlington Police Department’s Aviation Unit has been test flying Leptron Avenger helicopters since 2011. But the equipment, purchased with $202,000 in federal grants, has only been deployed on two actual missions — both in 2013.
“We’d like to use them but they are for specific purposes. We are not going to fly just because we can fly,” said Sgt. Jeff Houston, a police spokesman who also acts as an observer during flights to alert the pilot about obstacles and keep people away from the landing and take-off zone. “We are very protective of our citizens.”
After testing the unmanned aerial vehicles for two years, the Arlington Police Department won approval from the Federal Aviation Administration in February 2013 to fly the helicopters for public safety purposes. The department has seven licensed pilots.
Previously, the FAA had restricted the department’s flights to its training field. Now the department’s certificate of authorization allows flights within the city limits anywhere south of Interstate 30, away from the airspace of Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.
The aircraft can be used in numerous ways, including in search-and-rescue and tactical operations; for surveys of damage from floods, fires or other natural disasters; for forensic mapping of complex crime scenes; and for analysis of hazardous-materials spills on highways or after derailments. The helicopters are not used in police pursuits, for traffic citations or on routine patrols, police officials said.
“We have to go and make notification if we are going to be on someone’s property or taking video there. We take individuals privacy seriously. We have procedures in place to make sure we don’t inadvertently record someone’s private property,” said Sgt. Jeff Houston, a police spokesman. “These are not surveillance missions.”
Arlington police had their first opportunity to use an unmanned helicopter on May 13, 2013, to photograph a traffic fatality scene at Park Row and Fielder Drive.
“If you have a high-speed wreck where there is debris over a large area, that is where it would be most effective,” Houston said. “You can map that crime scene before anyone walks in an disturbs it. It gives you pristine mapping and pictures of a crime scene without disturbance.”
And on Oct. 28, 2013, a helicopter provided officers a better view of a barricaded homicide suspect during a seven-hour standoff. The man, who was armed with a rifle and shooting at officers outside, had holed up in at the Silverwood Apartments in northeast Arlington. Officers used the helicopter to monitor the man’s apartment balcony and the public breezeway while they moved other tenants to safety, Houston said. They were also able to eliminate a report about a possible gunshot victim lying on the apartment balcony. The suspect eventually surrendered.
“We put a camera is harm’s way instead of putting an officer in harm’s way,” Houston said.
Friday’s mission was the first since the department’s aviation program was temporarily halted by Police Chief Will Johnson following the crash of one of the small helicopters during an April 11 training exercise.
“Out of an abundance of caution, Chief Johnson grounded the Aviation Unit until we had a clear understanding of what happened,” said Cook, adding that no one was injured.
The Leptron Avenger, which weighs about 11 pounds, was about 50 to 75 feet above the ground on April 11 when it crashed at the department’s training facility on secured city-owned land at the north end of Lake Arlington. An investigation, completed last month, revealed a small screw in the tail rotor had come loose and caused the malfunction, Cook said.
Both helicopters were repaired by the vendor, Cook said.
“The final investigative report suggested that there was a mechanical failure that could not be discovered by our pilots,” said Cook, adding that both helicopters have since been repaired by the vendor. “Although we would have preferred to not have an incident during training, it does highlight the fact that all of our policies and safety protocols work as the only damage was to the helicopter.”
To survey storm damage Friday, Rollins flew a Leptron Rapidly Deployable Aerial Surveillance System, or RDASS, helicopter. The unmanned aerial vehicle, on loan to the department, first captured videos and photos of an Arlington Baptist College dormitory at 3000 W. Division Street, where several students were displaced after high winds tore off a section of roof.
“With the unmanned aircraft, our Aviation Unit is able to provide some detailed analysis of some of the most heavily damaged infrastructure or buildings we have at a very low cost,” Cook said.
Hovering as high as 75 feet, the helicopter then photographed the heavily damaged Don Davis auto body shop at 2111 W. Division St. and the J.D. Higgins Company building on Industrial Court near Road to Six Flags.
“Technology changes, so we are evaluating this to help us with the storm assessment. We thought this would be a good opportunity to try out the newer technology but we will still continue to operate the Avengers,” Cook said.
This report includes material from Star-Telegram archives.