WINNIPEG - Manitoba RCMP have joined the growing list of police forces using tiny, remote-controlled helicopters as eyes in the sky.
The one-metre-long devices come equipped with high-definition cameras that can stream video and photographs to officers on the ground. They give the Mounties a bird's-eye view of traffic accident and crime scenes.
"When you're standing on the ground, taking ground-level photographs, you're basically getting a two-dimensional perspective of the world around you," RCMP Cpl. Byron Charbonneau, a traffic collision reconstructionist, said Thursday.
"When you get a top-down view, it adds a third perspective to your investigation."
The devices can also be used when it may be dangerous to send an officer into an area, such as a toxic spill. The helicopter camera can determine how big the spill is and how it is moving before personnel are sent in.
The helicopters are similar to ones being used already by the Ontario Provincial Police, other RCMP divisions and some municipal police forces. But the ones chosen by Manitoba RCMP are custom-made. They're a little heavier than other models in order to resist the strong Prairie winds. They cost up to $30,000 each.
The use of such helicopters in other countries has raised privacy concerns from people who fear the choppers could be turned on protesters, crowds at sporting events, or just people walking in the street. That will not happen, according to the RCMP.
"Our policy prohibits that type of use (and) these aircraft are not really intended or designed for that type of use," Charbonneau said.
The helicopters only have enough power to fly for 13 minutes when they're carrying a camera, Charbonneau said, making them impractical for crowd surveillance.
The helicopters are not considered drones. They are controlled by a trained pilot on the ground and another RCMP member who operates the camera. The camera is mounted in a way that allows it to shoot in any direction, including straight down.
The mini-choppers are considered much less expensive than calling out the RCMP's full-sized helicopters for individual tasks. They can also hover much closer to the ground without creating noise and wind.