Oh, deer: Northampton police employ use of drone for first-ever field operation

  • Northampton police Sgt. Patrick Moody stabilizes the Phantom IV drone after the deer pursuit Friday. GAZETTE STAFF/MICHAEL MAJCHROWICZ

  • An aerial view of downtown Northampton, taken from the Northampton Police Department’s Phantom IV drone Friday. Courtesy Northampton Police Department

  • View from the drone as it flies over Look Park, searching for fugitive deer Friday. COURTESY NORTHAMPTON POLICE DEPARTMENT

Staff Writer
Published: 4/8/2017 12:18:06 AM

NORTHAMPTON — As the city slept, the deer ran free.

At some point Thursday evening, police said, a tree at Look Park fell and left an escape route open in one of the enclosures that hold two deer. On Friday morning, when park staff realized the deer were gone, they enlisted the help of city police.

When Sgt. Patrick Moody and officer Michael Allard arrived on the scene, it occurred to them: This was a job for the drone — the DJI Phantom IV, to be exact. It would be the first time the department employed the use of the flying camera since it was acquired in January.

And so up, up, up the drone went, ascending until it hovered — the humming and buzzing getting more and more faint the higher it goes — 400 feet above Look Park to capture an aerial view otherwise impossible. On the ground below, the officers trained their eyes to a tablet displaying the view captured by the drone.

As of Friday evening, even with the high-tech assistance of the drone’s all-seeing eye, the deer remained at large, their location unknown.

The department’s drone cost upwards of $1,200, Allard said. Next, police also are aiming to purchase a thermal imaging camera that may also be rigged to the drone, which in this case, Allard added, would’ve made it easier to locate the fugitive deer.

This was the first call for the police department’s drone unit. In order to operate the drone commercially or in any public-service capacity, Allard and Moody had to pass a test administered by the Federal Aviation Administration in order to become remote-pilot certified, they said.

“Our mission with this is search and rescue and crime scene documentation,” Moody said. “We’re not going to be using it to spy on people or in any intrusive manner. If someone from the city did call and were concerned about our drone in the area, I’d certainly give them a call or go by their house and talk to them about why we were there, what we were doing with it and what our mission was.”

The popularity of these drones, in the law enforcement community and beyond, Moody said, is skyrocketing. The drones are also being widely used in agriculture, for example, in order to monitor crops and even by transportation officials to map highways and various infrastructure.

“This is a vital tool to have,” Moody said. “We also envision using it … to document fire scenes if needed. The city has several needs for it as well … documenting marsh (and) wildlife areas and anything else they may need.”

There’s also no FAA regulations barring civilians from operating the same drones used by these officials. They just can’t use it for commercial purposes, according to the FAA.

“Now these are more available, more people can get them,” Moody said. “In 10 years, these things are going to be everywhere. Everyone’s going to have them.”

In the meantime, Look Park staff are still on the lookout for their escaped deer. Anyone who thinks they may have encountered the deer are asked to call the park office at 413-584-5457.


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