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Mark Wetzel, KSL TV

Here’s how troopers use drones and other tech tools to investigate crashes

By Liesl Nielsen, KSL.com | Posted - Nov 15th, 2018 @ 10:01am



This archived news story is available only for your personal, non-commercial use. Information in the story may be outdated or superseded by additional information. Reading or replaying the story in its archived form does not constitute a republication of the story.

PARLEYS CANYON — Troopers stopped traffic in Parleys Canyon Monday morning to investigate the scene of a fatal crash. But this was a little different than your run-of-the-mill traffic investigation.

There were no cars in sight, just a drone.

According to Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Nick Street, troopers on the scene of a fatal crash will often mark the area and reopen the road, then come back later and use the drone to scope out the scene — especially if an issue like inclement weather makes it difficult to investigate at the time of the crash.

The drone will then look for the markers and use lasers to map out the ground and evidence locations. Once on the computer, the images created by the drone help troopers connect the dots and construct a scale diagram of the crash to reconstruct how the accident may have occurred.

Along with tools like Google Earth, investigators can use the diagrams created by the drones to map out skid marks, debris fields and where the vehicle came to its final rest.

“That will help us ultimately get back to determine if something criminal happened in the crash,” Street said. “What the drone’s doing is what a piece of surveying equipment would do.”

But it can often be difficult for investigators to use typical surveying equipment in the canyon.

“Having the drone makes it a lot easier to really get that good scene diagram if we have a grade or there are curves. It’s just a much better mechanism for getting precise evidence,” Street said.

It also helps them speed up their crash scene data collection, he added.

While troopers have been using a drone to investigate crashes since the mid-90s (before stringent regulations), the Federal Aviation Administration eventually told the agency it couldn’t continue using the drone in that capacity, Street said.

The agency’s drone then sat in storage for a couple decades until about a year and a half ago when a few of the troopers became certified drone pilots and the agency bought some new drones.

Now, the agency owns a couple drones that travel around the state to help troopers who may have a particularly tricky crash scene.

Along with the drone, Street said the agency also uses a GPS stick that can pinpoint precise locations on the scene of a crash.

Like many police agencies, the Utah Highway Patrol also uses a faro scanner: a little rotating computer device that spins 360 degrees and maps out a 3D environment of a crash scene.

An image of a crash scene recreated using a faro scanner. (Photo: Utah Department of Public Safety)

The scanner uses a laser to pick up millions of data points and paints a picture of the scene, allowing officers to speed up a crime or fatal crash scene analysis in a matter of hours instead of days.

“(These are) just unique pieces of technology that are saving officers tons of man hours of investigating and drawing things out like with old methods that we don’t have to do anymore,” Street said.

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