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Iowa State Patrol to use drones for accident investigations

Iowa State Patrol to use drones for accident investigations

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MASON CITY — New technology is helping to document and recreate crash scenes quickly and accurately for the Iowa State Patrol.

The Patrol is incorporating a new small unmanned aircraft system.

The new drone uses 3-D imaging and mapping to collect precise digital evidence, allowing troopers to investigate and reconstruct crash scenes while minimizing highway disruptions.

“This is a fantastic day for the State Patrol as we look at the technology,” Sgt. Alex Dinkla said.

The systems will be used only for accident investigations, not traffic enforcement, Dinkla said.

“Actually, there is a law that prohibits us to be able to even utilize that as a traffic enforcement program,” Dinkla said.

There are eight collision reconstructionists in the state — two for each of the four quadrants — certified with an FAA to pilot the drones.

Each reconstructionist will have his or her own sUAS, a DJI Mavic 2 Pro.

The system takes still pictures from several different angles that are reconstructed, or “stitched together,” into a big 3-D scale model of a crash scene using imaging software, Dinkla said.

Trooper Mark Anderson, a reconstructionists based in Fort Dodge, said he can fly the drone over the scene to take photographs, and once he’s done the vehicles quickly can be removed and the road opened again.

“Which is what our main goal is: to get everything back to normal as quick as possible,” Anderson said.

The drone has a high-resolution camera to take hundreds of images from all different angles and collect data points for measurement purposes.

Once the photos have been stitched together and the 3-D model built on the computer, officers can view a crash from every angle, moving into the scene anywhere they want to go, Anderson said.

“If you take photographs in the air of skid marks, sometimes just pictures don’t show it, but with this 3-D model, we’ve seen it where, when you tilt the scene, you can actually see shadows, like in the grass, that you couldn’t actually see in the photographs to begin with,” he said. “So you can just turn it in any direction to see any angle of the scene itself.”

For years investigators just used measuring tapes when piecing together a crash scene.

“Now we’re flying UAVs to take mapping from the air, so technology’s awesome,” he said. “And the end product is just spot-on. The measurements we can do on the computer are just phenomenal.”

Anderson said the 3-D model shows county attorneys and juries in a criminal setting what it a scene looks like from drivers’ perspectives.

Using assets from the Iowa Department of Transportation and MidAmerican Energy was a big help in launching the system, according to Dinkla.

Last year, the Patrol investigated 149 fatal crashes, and current investigative techniques can take hours to fully document a collision scene.

“That’s a lot of fatal crashes that we are putting our hands on, and we need to do a good service to each one of those families and people that were impacted by those crashes,” Dinkla said. “And so this new technology, it’s going to be a huge benefit to not only Iowans but motorists as they travel through our state.”

One of the biggest advantages is minimizing the time traffic is held up at crash scenes. That’s a big deal because the likelihood of a secondary crash increases by 3 percent every minute a road is closed, Dinkla said.

“If we’re out there on the interstate, we have maybe the interstate shut down for several hours, we know that there are a lot of people affected by that,” he said. “And so with this new technology, once we become fully proficient with that, our hope is to maybe be able to map a crash scene in 20 to 30 minutes.”

The Patrol won’t abandon its other investigatory tools; it will use them as backups for when weather (such as strong wind, snow and rain) or nearby objects, like buildings and trees, prevent the drones from flying.

For the next six to 12 months, every crash scene will be documented with both the “total station” — a laser survey that precisely maps accident scenes — and the new drone to prove it is an accurate tool.

“Our hope is that we can make sure that we utilize both measurements, and we can basically put them on top of one other, they’re going to mirror each other, so that when we go to court and everything like that, we can bring good relevance to that program to be proven accurate,” Dinkla said.

The Iowa State Patrol has been looking at building this new program for the past two years, studying similar programs run in Missouri and Wisconsin.

Grace Zaplatynsky can be reached at 641-421-0534.


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