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Private Investigators Are Using Drones After Legal Ruling


Surveillance drone image

Legal decision makes it legal for private investigators to use aerial surveillance drones

Today  aerial photographers and film makers celebrate a Judges recent decision lifting the ban on the commercial use of drones. Private investigators are using drones after legal ruling or at least our agency is. Drones are a much needed tool for pre-surveillance, litigation support and evidence collection. The next battle for drone owners is the public fear that drones will be used to spy on them.  I would like to be the first to say that the vast majority of the drones being used today such as the DJI Phantom (a quadcopter) will never be an issue. Here are three good reasons why:

  1. Drones require a great deal of battery power to fly. As such the more payload you add in the form of cameras, gimbals and transmitters, the less flying time you get. The average is about 8 minutes which includes takeoff, flying to its destination, returning to home, and landing.
  2. The most widely used camera attached to these drones are the GoPro, which has a very wide angle fixed lens. Even if you use its narrowest setting the party with privacy concerns would be quite small. It’s essentially the same view you would get from zooming in on Google earth which is already widely used by private investigators and the legal community. Can’t see anyone with pockets deep enough to raise this issue with Google.
  3. Drones use electric motors and props to obtain lift. This makes drones quite noisy. The larger the drone the higher it would need to be in efforts to be stealthy.  The higher the drone the smaller the subject or details of the subject.  Yes, a zoom lens could be used with a larger camera. However, that would be a larger payload. As such you would need more motors, props, and bigger batteries. In the same a larger drone (such as a Hexacopter or Octocopter) would be easier to both see and hear. A drone capable of “spying” on you would cost about $5,000 t0 $10,000. Military drones cost millions.  The best angle to obtain usable clamant surveillance footage for insurance or workmen’s compensation investigations will always be from the ground.

Privacy advocates use the term “surveillance drones” to paint a very broad stroke in efforts to mislead the public. They want the public to believe a retail drone has the capability of a military drone. This is not the case.  As private investigators we often provide litigation support to attorney’s and insurance companies. Here are some examples of how our private investigators are using surveillance drones after the court ruling:

  • As previously stated Google earth is a valuable tool to the private investigator.  The problem with using Google earth is you have no idea when the image was taken. You can’t prove in court that the image(s) were never altered.  Drones allow the private investigator real time imagery they could become a business record which they can validate in court. That being said,  aerial drone imagery can be used to with Google Earth to demonstrate how the topology changed over time. For example we used Google earth and ariel photography on a case in Apollo Beach Florida to show how construction vehicles had damaged county side walks which may have caused a jogger to trip and fall. The evidence most likely assisted the attorney in joining the construction company and the home owner into the law suit.
  • Law enforcement and private investigators often do accident reconstruction.  Drones would allow the investigator the ability to document everything exactly as it came to rest in as close to real time as possible. Drones can also be used to document construction sites, sink holes or disaster areas such as Katrina or the Jersey shore.
  • Private investigators and recovery agents can now use aerial drones to locate property that may be hidden in a persons backyard the same way law enforcement uses helicopters to search for marijuana grow fields.
  • Drones also make a great pre-surveillance tool. Often in rural areas man made roads don’t appear on maps. The drone can help determine the routes available to your subject. They are also a safer alternative for the investigator, to the extent he can fly over the subjects home to determine what if any vehicles are present and their make and model.  The view is not as good as Google street view, and it will prevent you from being shot for accidently trespassing.
  • Drones offer a cheaper alternative to hiring a pilot or chartering a plane. When it comes to litigation support drones have the potential to lower litigation cost. Now that a judge has made the use of drones legal for commercial use, attorney’s can now admit their imagery and footage into evidence.

Surveillance Specialist Group is Florida’s premiere private investigations agency located in the Tampa Bay area. We have private investigators trained in the legal use of drones as a tool in litigation support and evidence collection. Our drones have automated flight controls that make the inherently compliant with FAA rules. Please feel free to contact us if you have a need for aerial  photography or video footage of an area.