DRONES: The Forensic Investigator’s Eye in the Sky

Interview with our forensic investigator and certified drone pilot 

In order to pursue our goal of better serving our customers, CEP is constantly on the lookout for technological advances that could improve our service offerings, which is why we turned to the use of drones to enhance our investigations about four years ago.

Some of our employees have obtained their certified drone pilot license and can use these devices not only for taking aerial images, but also for three-dimensional modeling of certain sites, adding value to our reports in most areas of expertise.

We sat down with our forensic investigator, and certified drone pilot, Caitlin Ringland for a discussion on the topic.

Hello everyone and thank you for joining us.

My name is Paul Gullekson (PG) and I am with CEP Forensic, a forensic engineering firm. Today we will be chatting about how we use drone technology to both figuratively and literally elevate our investigations.

I am here in our Vancouver office, with Caitlin Ringland (CR), one of our Fire and Explosion investigators as well as our tech expert who is a certified drone pilot.

1.     Why don’t we start with you telling me what we have here.

What we have here is a Microdrone. This is a DJI Mini 2. This drone weighs just under 250 grams which is why it’s called a microdrone. It has a stabilizing gimbal for clear photos and video, up to 4K, and it is controlled using a combination this controller and a smartphone.

2.  Can you explain the difference between a micro drone and larger ones?

Microdrones are light and compact. They are about the size of a bird, which means there are fewer restrictions and essentially anyone can operate them. For larger drones, greater than 250 grams, there are stricter requirements outlined by Transport Canada. This includes needing to be a certified pilot to operate them and needing an approved flight plan in certain areas.

A bonus to the larger drones is that there are attachments you can get such as spotlights to use in dark spaces, or you can get drones that have thermal cameras built in which are great for inspections.

PG: Great technology. Most of our 10 offices are using microdrones, can you explain how we ensure that our operators are well trained and understand the hazards.

CR: We achieve this by having our certified pilots, train our operators as well as manage our drone fleet. This ensures that the equipment is being used properly and safely.

3.  So next let’s talk about HOW we use this technology. At CEP Forensic we have a wide variety of experts, which means we see a lot of different types of investigations. Caitlin, can you take us through how drones can assist in these investigations.

On a general note, we use the drones to obtain overview shots, aerials, getting different perspective than conventional photography, as well as being able to fly in places where it is difficult to access or is not safe to enter.

Since the drone is quick to deploy, it is more efficient and cost-effective versus trying to rent and coordinate large equipment.

With our fire investigations, we use the drone for large fires and explosions that can help give us a better understanding of the extent damage and insight into what happened.

Similarly for civil and structural investigations, drones are used to document large buildings, and hard to reach places.

We’ve also used the drone for crane collapses and other large unconventional losses.

PG: I’m part of the collision team, and for us, drones are great tool for our site examinations. Including aerial views of large intersections and roadways as well as doing video fly throughs to provide perspective.

4.  In addition to aerial photos and videos, we have access to software that allows 3D modeling of a site or structure. Could you briefly explain what that consists of?

For 3D modeling, I take the photos and/or video obtained and process it in specialized software that will take the images from a 2D perspective and render a 3D model, which you can interact with. We also can produce Orthomosaics which are an undistorted image consisting of multiple aerial shots which provides great detail and clarity that we can measure off of.

We use this technology to produce various models of buildings and scenes. This is important as buildings may be excavated and scenes cleared, and we want to ensure we have documented the physical evidence before it disappears.

PG: What I like about this technology is that you can drop right into the 3D world to get a better understanding of the scene.

For example, using an orthomosaic and 3D vehicle model we can work in 3D space to determine what happened.

CR: Yes, this technology is continuously advancing.

Agreed, and what we talked about today regarding different drones, their uses in investigations and with 3D modeling, is only one aspect of technology we use at CEP Forensic. Our experts are always researching and challenging themselves to be leaders in their forensic fields. This means adopting new methods and seeking out new technology.

Thank you, Caitlin, for sharing your knowledge with us!

If you have any questions about this service, or other CEP Forensic services, please contact us. Thank you.

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