When a big accident closes the highway, it can take state troopers hours to make the measurements and take the pictures they’ll need to determine what happened. Meanwhile, the crashed vehicles sit in the roadway in front of a line of exasperated drivers.
Now the State Highway Patrol says it can use drones to document and reconstruct serious accidents. The drones can make 3-D images of crash scenes, just like the laser systems that troopers use now on tripods. But drones can take aerial images the troopers can’t. Plus, the drones do all of it much faster.
“What used to take hours can now be done in minutes,” said Trooper Dan Souther, a member of the Highway Patrol’s Collision Reconstruction Unit.
Souther and other members of the reconstruction unit demonstrated the drone’s capabilities at the Highway Patrol’s test track off Tryon Road in Raleigh on Friday morning. Trooper John Collins used GPS to map out an area over a Highway Patrol cruiser that had been hit from behind, then launched the drone.
It rose to about 40 feet in the air over the crumpled cruiser, then flew back and forth over it in neat rows, making images as it went. The system’s software quickly knitted those images together into a 3-D image that can be viewed from all different angles on a computer screen.
The drone was finished in a few minutes. Collins said it would take troopers on the ground about an hour to do the same work, as they move their tripods every time they make a new image.
The 21 troopers in the crash reconstruction unit investigate about 200 high-profile crashes in the state a year, working out of five offices across the state. The unit has only two drones now, but at $1,300 per drone, 1st Sgt. Alex Justice, the unit’s leader, hopes to have one for each of the 21 troopers within a year.
“It’s incredible technology, and we’re really fortunate to have it,” Justice said.
The Highway Patrol has been working on its drone program for several years, with the help of the state Department of Transportation’s Division of Aviation. The division regulates the use of drones in the state, but also uses them, primarily to gauge the progress at road construction sites, said Basil Yap, who manages NCDOT’s Unmanned Aerial Systems program.
The potential use for the drones in accident reconstruction became clear in Buncombe County in May, when a head-on collision was staged at a state training facility. A team from Yap’s program used drones to map the accident scene, while the Highway Patrol used a traditional laser scanner.
The troopers took an hour and 51 minutes to gather the information they needed. The drones did the same in 25 minutes.