They don’t fire missiles or drop bombs, but the RCMP in P.E.I. have added an unmanned aerial vehicle to the tools they use to do their jobs.
Greg McCormick, a communications operator in Charlottetown, flies the remote controlled helicopter that he says isn’t a drone and doesn’t have the same capabilities as those in the military’s arsenal.
“The only thing these things share, they’re best described as distant cousins,” he said.
The RCMP’s unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is a six-bladed helicopter about the size of a large pizza with a mount for a camera that feeds back to a display on the ground so its operator can see what the camera sees.
McCormick described it as an overgrown hobbyist remote control airplane, although its purpose as an RMCP tool changes it from a model to a remotely piloted vehicle in Nav Canada’s eyes.
“It’s actually a lot of fun,” he said.
With an $18,000 price tag, it’s also more expensive than a typical remote controlled helicopter, although McCormick said L Division got its unit as a gift from the RCMP in Saskatchewan where they had it as surplus.
Although the unit itself is expensive, parts for it are available at a local hobby shop and McCormick said the RCMP budgets a few hundred dollars annually for repairs.
Unlike regular hobbyists, the RCMP has to check with Nav Canada first before any flights because the helicopter is used by a law enforcement agency.
The RCMP has been using it primarily to help traffic reconstructionists at collision sites to take pictures from overhead instead of bringing in a helicopter from Moncton, which costs about $1,000 per hour, requires a photographer and takes time to get to the scene.
McCormick can get the UAV up in the air in a matter of minutes once he drives to a scene and it only costs about $42 per flight, although he said it’s not meant to completely replace the full-size RCMP helicopter.
“It’s just another tool in our arsenal of things that we have at our disposal,” he said.
When it came time to learn to fly the UAV, McCormick started on a smaller helicopter bought at a hobby shop before he went to Swift Current, Sask. in April for two days of training. Since then he’s used it on the job about six times, but its use is largely dependent on weather conditions.
“High winds, which we tend to have a lot of on the Island, don’t always play very well with the ability to take a photograph so sometimes we may want to use it but the weather conditions don’t permit,” he said.
When he can use it, McCormick said it has a range of about a quarter of a mile and Nav Canada caps its altitude at 500 feet, although he likes to keep it lower and doesn’t take it above 300 feet.
He also said it’s not a surveillance device.
“The thing sounds like an angry hornet’s nest of bees,” he said.
As for how many times he’s crashed the helicopter, McCormick said he’s had a couple of incidents with trees and it can be tricky to fly at times because the unit ends up several hundred feet away, which makes it harder to tell which direction it’s facing.
“The concept behind flying these isn’t so much of whether or not you crash it, but when you crash it,” he said.
Greg McCormick, a communications operator in Charlottetown, shows off a new tool in the Prince Edward Island RCMP’s tool chest, an unmanned aerial vehicle or UAV. The UAV is a six-bladed helicopter about the size of a large pizza with a mount for a camera.
©Guardian photo by Heather Taweel