Demo shows use of drones by RCMP in rural, Indigenous communities

A five-year-old has taken off from a residence into a wooded area in Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation.

This was the mock scenario Cochrane RCMP painted for a drone demonstration on Friday (June 14) during trials it was conducting in the First Nation earlier this month.

From a meeting room at the Cochrane detachment, a remote drone pilot reached the site where the child was last seen in about two minutes and honed in on a bushy area where a white sedan and a person imitating the child could be seen on a big television screen.

“In this scenario, we would have radioed a local RCMP member on the ground and advised that we have eyes on the individual and they would have swept in and saved the day,” said Cst. Anthony Setlack.

The demo was intended to show how drones can enable a more efficient use of police resources. The trial looked at how the technology can be used to improve public safety and handle police investigations and critical incidents.

RCMP is looking at potentially rolling out drones at municipal detachments as the technology is deemed a more cost-friendly and accessible option than helicopters to offer aerial support at a crime scene and better inform responding officers before they arrive.

The drones used by RCMP cost about $36,000, including docking stations, and can reach a crime scene quickly, though there are limitations around how far they can be piloted and battery life. Most have a travel radius of about two nautical miles, which is about four kilometres, from where they are docked.

They can also be equipped with loudspeakers, grapple hooks to deliver equipment to remote locations and other technology. During the drone demo, pilots had the capability to use wide-angle, zoomed in and infrared imaging.

Cochrane RCMP, which has trained drone pilots, will be one of a few detachments across the province to receive a drone as police continue to assess use for public safety.

Supt. Kevin Kunetzki, deputy criminal operations officer for RCMP K Division, said trials in Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation, Lac La Biche and Red Deer have proved valuable for information gathering.

“There’s also been some challenges, for sure. Different technologies are better than others in some scenarios, as well, the environments themselves pose different challenges,” he said.

While the drone was flying over Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation, wind in the foothills made stabilizing and landing the drone difficult for pilots, who were located both at the Cochrane detachment and RCMP headquarters in Edmonton.

From the Cochrane detachment, chiefs and administration of Goodstoney and Chiniki First Nations looked on as drones surveyed the landscape, video mirrored back at them from a television screen.

Chiniki Chief Aaron Young said he was pleased with the demonstration, overall, and likened the technology’s use to traditional scouting methods formerly used by First Nations to watch for approaching enemies.

“Now, a couple hundred years later, we have these drones,” he said. “Protection in viewing and scouting, I think that mandate is still in place and with technology, our younger people will have the opportunity to maintain that mandate of protecting [our community].”

The chiefs said they’re hopeful RCMP drones can help crack down on drug trafficking in the area, which has been a prevalent issue.

Drone use also raises questions about privacy in Indigenous communities, but Young noted RCMP have been respectful during consultation before beginning trials and during. He said he sees the technology as mutually beneficial, if used appropriately.

“Some of these areas are remote and because of that, it takes time to respond to an emergency or criminal activity taking place,” said Young.

“It can take RCMP a while to reach a scene here if they are coming from Cochrane, or even from the Stoney RCMP detachment, so hopefully this will help with response times and to keep those criminal activities at bay in our community.”

Jessica Lee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Rocky Mountain Outlook