Use of Drones and Lighting in Night Crime Scene Reconstruction

3D orthomosaic map of night crime scene reconstruction

FoxFury Lighting Solutions and Sundance Media Group (SMG) host a regular event to show the effective use of drone technology to quickly map and document a crime scene. Their most recent demonstration was in Las Vegas at Interdrone in early September. In this exercise, personnel has to battle a remote location, hot temperatures, and nighttime conditions to document and map the mock crime scene quickly.

The Scene and Conditions

On the left: FoxFury Nomad 360 with red color band used to preserve night vision On the right: FoxFury Nomad 360 is waterproof, used to illuminate the scene in the rain
This crime scene consisted of one deceased victim that had been assaulted and located on a remote path on the edge of Henderson, NV. Out in the desert, there is no ambient lighting. The site is also remote enough that it is difficult to get vehicles and equipment to the crime scene. Passing rainstorms with strong winds presented additional challenges to the crime scene investigators and made it imperative that they process the scene quickly before substantial weather compromised the scene or evidence.

Drones or UAVs provide some benefits to documenting a crime or accident scene like this one. The drone can be operated from a remote position outside of the crime scene so it can initially document and map the scene in a non-destructive manner.

Also, the drone can photograph or map the whole scene very quickly. It is essential for getting other investigators on-site to do further, more detailed processing. It’s also critical if the crime scene or accident is in a public roadway that is closed for the investigation and needs to reopen.

Processing a crime scene requires a precise workflow or operating procedure to ensure that the scene or evidence doesn’t get compromised or critical evidence does not get missed or thrown out.

Pre-flight

Before the UAV team can conduct a mapping mission of the crime scene, they must perform the preflight checklist. It consists of making sure the drone is in good working order and calibrated; batteries are all charged, Remote Pilot in Command (RPIC), and Visual Observers (VO) are all in good mental and physical condition to operate the mission safely.

The team also needs to confirm that they can operate in the given airspace and that they have all clearance and waivers to fly. Lastly, they need to conduct a thorough review of the weather to ensure that a passing storm or changing conditions could compromise the mission or endanger the investigation crews on the ground.

Lighting

FoxFury T56 scene light illuminates the mock crime scene before mapping

Due to the absence of substantial ambient lighting in this remote area, scene lighting was brought in to provide adequate lighting for documentation. FoxFury Nomad T56 lights were positioned equidistant around the perimeter of the crime scene aimed inward toward the victim providing even lighting across the whole scene.

The Nomad T56s are battery powered, which eliminates the need for cords and supplemental power. Cables take time to manage, present trip and safety hazards, and can potentially contaminate a crime scene. The cordless design also allows the investigation team to move and position lights, saving valuable time.

These Nomad T56 lights are also daylight balanced; high CRI LED design. CRI stands for Color Rendition Index, and a higher CRI means better color accuracy. It means that colors look and reproduce accurately to eyes and camera sensors. For example, reds will render true red and not shift to purple or brown. Skin tones will have a natural look and color and not become green and sickly. When documenting a crime scene, it is of absolute necessity.

Greater illumination of the crime scene allows the drone camera to provide sharper images with less noise and more resolution. It also allows the camera to shoot at a faster shutter speed, which is important when the drone is moving above a scene photographing it.

The mapping drone also equipped with its lights that provide additional search illumination and strobing light that made it FAA 107.29 compliant to meet FAA regulations to fly at night.

Night Flight

Autel EVO drone with FoxFury lighting system (coming soon) before flight

One of the objectives of this demonstration was to show how a crime scene could get documented at night. Besides having proper light to illuminate the crime scene, other factors need to take into consideration before conducting a night flight.

For starters, the Remote Pilot in Command (RPIC) needs to have a daytime waiver when flying under CFR 14 section 107. Also, scouting needs to be performed to ensure there are no guy wires, power lines, trees, or other hurdles that can interfere with the mission.

Before flying the drone, the pilot must select whether to operate manually or on a predetermined set path using a drone that follows you. Both will get the job done, yet the decision needs to made in advance, and considerations need to get taken.

If flying manually, the drone needs to hover at a consistent height so that the highest quality map can get generated. The working area is then communicated to the ground crew so that everyone is aware of the drone operating above.

Flight Time

For this demonstration, all of the 60 attendees got positioned at the far end of the crime scene where Douglas Spotted Eagle from Sundance Media Group provided a step by step explanation of the drone mapping operation. Office David Martel of Las Vegas Metro Police Department was also present to explain how his teams use the drones and lighting systems for their crime scene investigation and accident documentation.

On the other side of the crime scene were the Pilots in Command, Brady Reisch, and James Spear. They were piloting an Autel EVO outfitted with FoxFury D3060 lights and a Yuneec H520 outfitted with FoxFury Rugo RCS.

The EVO flew in a grid type formation capturing nadir (looking straight down) images. It then flew an orbital pattern around the scene to capture oblique images that would enhance the 3D model.

Flight time was approximately 8 minutes per aircraft for the demonstration. If it was a real investigation, the flight pattern would be more comprehensive to capture more images; flight time would have increased to ~15-20 minutes.

Software

Once we concluded the flight, the EVO brought back to the landing zone, memory cards got extracted, and the data was loaded into Pix4D photogrammetry software to create an ortho-mosaic model of the crime scene. A point cloud and model were generated that evening, providing a detailed rendering of the scene.

The Results

Final 2D orthomosaic map of the scene

A 2D orthomosaic map can be seen above. You can see the point cloud and orthomosaic map (with 3D data) here. Hold CTL + SHIFT to rotate the scene in 3 dimensions.

This demonstration illustrated how drones can be used to create detailed models of a scene that can be analyzed immediately and years after the incident. Even in a remote, challenging area, the scene can be photographed, mapped, and processed quickly with minimal disturbance to the scene itself. These technologies provide investigators a whole new set of tools to complete their jobs safely, efficiently, and accurately.

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