Maryland Transportation Authority Police 1st Sgt. Greg Sampson still remembers the call.
There was a serious crash on Interstate 95. A motorist was injured, and investigators were needed for a crash reconstruction.
As administrator of the MDTA Police’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems – or “drone” – program, Sampson often reports to crash sites to help investigators gather the evidence they need. On this day, Sampson used his drone to gather a host of images, measurements and other data.
By the time paramedics departed with the injured motorist, Sampson had completed his flight. Without the drone, the data-gathering process would have resulted in a lengthy road closure – as long as 90 minutes for serious crashes – while investigators scoured the scene.
Drones have become an increasingly useful tool in the day-to-day operations of MDTA Police and the Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration (MDOT SHA). Their high-resolution cameras and other technology systems gather data quickly, efficiently and put MDTA Police and MDOT SHA personnel at less risk.
“Our people aren’t exposed to danger, there are no secondary crashes because of backups, and by increasing the traffic flow, we’re seeing an economic impact,” Sampson said. “Vehicles and commodities are still able to move.”
The Authority uses drones primarily to investigate crash scenes and access dangerous or hard-to-reach locations. On one occasion, a drone was flown in to inspect a vehicle that officers feared may have been rigged with explosives. Fortunately, it wasn’t. Then earlier this year, an MDTA Police drone was flown above the Bay Bridge to track repaving efforts for public information purposes.
MDTA Police began using drones in early 2018. Now, the team consists of eight people who are responsible for five aircrafts of various sizes and abilities.
“It’s a great way to help share information with the public and let them see things they can’t usually see,” Sampson said.
MDTA Police also use drones for training purposes. The aircraft allow training officers to capture a bird’s-eye-view of training exercises, then use that footage to better prepare its police force, Sampson said.
Several law enforcement agencies in Virginia and Pennsylvania have reached out to the MDTA Police for guidance on starting their own drone programs.
‘A huge time and labor saver’
The MDOT SHA has three drones that it uses for a variety of purposes, too, from monitoring potential landslides in Western Maryland to helping fix infrastructure issues across the state.
“They can be a huge time and labor saver,” said Matt Horowitz, who coordinates the MDOT SHA drone program.
The program began in 2018 with one aircraft used primarily to map geological hazards. The agency saw the benefits immediately, Horowitz said.
In the fall of 2018, soil sliding was reported on a steep section of Haystack Mountain along Interstate 68 in Western Maryland. Investigators walking the site discovered minor fissures, but a subsequent drone inspection revealed much larger problems not visible to those on foot.
Over the next four months, repeated drone monitoring revealed a significant, slow-moving debris flow and three separate landslide features that were in various stages of failure. Without a drone, MDOT SHA may not have known the scope of the problem until a large landslide occurred.
The detailed images, measurements and other information gathered over those months helped MDOT SHA initiate an emergency project to stabilize the slope and catchment area – ultimately preventing a catastrophe.
‘Changing the way we do business’
In the nearly two years since the Haystack Mountain project, MDOT SHA has used drones across the state. They respond to and gather data on sinkholes, damaged bridges and other infrastructure, giving quick calculations used by decision-makers on the ground. Drones are used for environmental purposes, too, such as wetland delineations and site surveys.
Like MDTA Police, MDOT SHA uses drones to inspect dangerous or hard-to-reach locations, such as communication towers for the Coordinated Highway Action Response Team. Plans are in the works to use drones to inspect small culverts, which are often filled with muck and debris, leading to a difficult and time-consuming inspection process.
The aircrafts add “value, efficiency and safety” to projects across MDOT SHA, Horowitz said.
Drone pilots must complete a rigorous training and certification process. They’re also cognizant of privacy concerns, whether it’s the images they take or the data they gather. Prior to the MDTA Police drone program’s launch, for instance, the agency consulted with the ACLU of Maryland to establish appropriate and responsible policies.
To keep up with the latest technology, laws and other issues, pilots undergo regular training.
MDOT Secretary and MDTA Chairman Greg Slater believes the increased use of drones greatly benefits the state.
“Drones are just one more way we’re using innovation and technology to improve Maryland’s transportation system,” Secretary Slater said. “The images and data these drones collect are changing the way we do business.”