LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — They are sworn to protect, serve and fly. 13 Investigates was given a rare, inside look at the small drone program within the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department making a big difference to document crimes and someday even save lives.
The drone program is in its infancy for Las Vegas Police.
Sgt. Brad Cupp says it was launched in 2017 and the very first mission, as it turns out, was historic.
The department used a drone to fly over and document the scene of the 1 October shooting across from Mandalay Bay.
"What was the first use case for our operation drone technology, it was primarily used to fly that very large crime scene.
Cupp is with the Technical Operations Section and oversees the small unmanned aerial systems program.
Under his watch, the unit now includes 10 detectives who are all trained and certified with FAA Part 107 drone operator credentials.
Currently, the unit is typically called upon to document crime scenes in the air, typically homicide scenes and deadly car crashes.
On occasion, the drones are called in for critical incidents such as police officer-involved shootings or SWAT operations.
Cupps says the use of the drone can cut down on the danger for both officers on the ground and in the air.
"Anytime you put an aircrew up in an aircraft, there are in-air emergencies that happen from time to time and as a police department we're not immune to that," explained Cupp.
"Every time an aircrew goes up, there's some level of risk that is presented, not only to the pilots but in the event of an emergency, any collateral damage for people and citizens that are on the ground, should that aircraft come down," added Cupp.
Cupp adds Las Vegas police have an impeccable safety record.
A search of 13 Action News archives reveals two hard landing incidents in the past 10 years.
On Sept. 24, 2012, a Las Vegas Police helicopter came to a rest on its side at the North Las Vegas airport.
The chopper was deemed a complete loss but those on board survived.
On Dec. 31, 2014, an engine failure forced a hard landing near 23rd Street and Bonanza in a neighborhood.
The officers on board were able to walk away and were treated and released from the hospital the same day.
At the time, command staff praised the pilot for avoiding homes, light poles and other objects to bring the aircraft down in the middle of a residential street.
The bottom line, unexpected incidents can happen.
"Our helicopters weigh in excess of 3,500 pounds, there's probably 60 gallons or more of jet fuel on board, and there are large metal rotors flying around," added Cupp.
Cupp says the unmanned aerial systems keep aircrews out of harm's way.
The technology provides a smaller footprint, making it more agile for close-range needs to the ground and does so at a fraction of the cost associated with a traditional helicopter.
"When you consider it takes approximately $400-plus an hour to operate the helicopter compared to $5 to $10 an hour, depending on which drone aircraft we're operating, the economics of it makes sense very quickly," explained Cupp.
Cupp admits the drones have presented a bit of a learning curve.
The technology is so new the department developed the training in-house, creating a 'ground school' for detectives to learn how to fly the drones.
The operation often time requires flight over dense areas such as neighborhoods, around power lines and other obstacles.
The detectives must undergo monthly training and quarterly refresher courses are mandatory to stay current with certifications.
"Probably one of the more controversial things that we're looking to explore is probably the patrol support functionality that the helicopter is already being used for, to provide an in the air overall perspective for patrol units that are responding to a crime in progress," said Cupp.
Las Vegas police say privacy is paramount and the drones mimic the capabilities they've had for decades using their fleet of helicopters.
"We can't fly over peoples residences and snoop in people's windows without a search warrant, there's laws or regulations as a police department that we have to follow and we don't get any specialized treatment just because we are a law enforcement agency operating a drone," said Cupp.
In the future, Cupp seems more drone usage, especially with search and rescue missions.
He says the small drones can fly search patterns in remote and rugged terrain for lost or stranded hikers.
Once located the drone can send GPS coordinates for the helicopter to arrange rescue efforts.
Cupp says someday when payloads are able to be transported using their drone technology, medical supplies or even sleeping bags could be dropped off for stranded individuals in case rescue efforts have to wait due to inclement weather or lighting conditions.
Currently, only sworn officers can use the drones for the police department but Cupp says civilians may be called upon for less critical drone missions in the future.
Cupp says there are legal questions, though, about how much of a role a non-commissioned civilian can play in the furtherance of a search warrant or court order when it comes to drone involvement.