APD to use drones to lower investigation time at fatal crash scenes


AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin Police Department will soon begin using drones to map fatal crash scenes. Officers say drone technology produces a quicker and more accurate result than mapping from the ground, and could drastically cut down traffic delays.

Currently, officers use point and shoot laser technology to map scenes from the ground. 

Lt. Blake Johnson of APD’s Vehicle Homicide Unit describes the method as “very time-consuming. It could take up to three hours.”

But using a drone, he says: “From the time we launch the UAV to when it maps, flies the grid pattern and lands, it’s on average about 15 minutes.”

Lt. Johnson says that will allow investigators to do their job quicker. It could potentially cut hours off of the time traffic is backed up.

However, Lt. Johnson says it’s not just a plus for drivers waiting to get through. It’s a matter of safety for everyone working the scene.

“A fatal crash scene is unique in and of itself. It’s different from any other crash scene, because it’s on a roadway, and often a high-speed roadway,” he said. “You have vehicles on the other side, vehicles slip through barricades. It’s a dangerous environment, so we want to absolutely minimize time on scene.”

The lieutenant also says the mapping software used with the drones is much more accurate than taking measurements from the ground, which can make a big difference in criminal cases.

“If somebody’s loved one is killed by a drunk driver, they want that person held to justice, and this produces an excellent, excellent product for the ultimate crash reconstruction to bring to court,” he said.

APD has purchased two drones specifically for mapping fatal crashes, and the District Attorney’s Office purchased the software that will produce the scene measurements.

Before the new technology is put to use, however, APD will hold three public input sessions to give more information and take any questions residents may have.

Lt. Johnson says in those public meetings, officers will address any privacy concerns residents may have.

“We want to assure them that this is going to be used in a completely forensic environment,” he said. “We’re capturing cars on a public roadway involving a crash. It in no way is a surveillance tool.”

The first public forum will be held at the Westin Hotel at the Domain, located 11301 Domain Dr., at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 28.

The second will be at the APD South Substation, located at 404 Ralph Ablanedo Dr., at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 29.

The third will be held at the APD East Substation, located at 812 Springdale Rd., at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 5.

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