In Massachusetts, Another Police Drone Helps Find and Rescue a Missing Child

Another law enforcement drone has saved the day – this time in Massachusetts.  Police in Freetown, MA deployed an unmanned aerial vehicle on December 16 to locate a missing two-year old.  The toddler was abandoned by its mother just prior to her arrest on felony assault charges.

Police commenced a frantic search of the neighborhood with a foot patrol, a K-9 tracking team and a newly acquired drone in the hopes of finding the two-year old before darkness set in.  Just past 11 p.m. the drone, equipped with heat-sensing, thermal imaging sensors, located the child in a nearby wooded area adjacent to the Freetown State Forest, a  5,000-acre park reserve with 25 miles of hiking trails.

The drone operator relayed the information to the search team which closed in to retrieve the child.  It was a close call:  The child, already suffering from exposure due to the sub-freezing cold, was transferred to a local hospital for medical treatment.

This was Freetown police’s first successful drone deployment, but not the first for law enforcement agencies in the area.   Several other departments in the vicinity of Freetown State Forest – where hikers periodically get lost – have acquired drones recently,  primarily for search and rescue.

For example, the Fall River, MA police department – located just 2 miles away from Freetown – acquired a small fleet of drones back in 2018.  The largest drone,  a DJI Matrice 220, comes equipped with thermal imaging cameras ideal for locating and rescuing missing persons.

The department also deploys two smaller DJI Enterprise drones with zoom cameras that can assist SWAT teams with video surveillance during high-risk hostage scenarios but also routinely assist officers with crime and accident scene analysis.

Fall River spent $40,000 to purchase its DJI Matrice 220 drone, using a combination of police funds and private donations.  But police officials say the expense is more than compensated by savings realized over time.  “A drone is a lot like a helicopter but it’s a helluva lot cheaper,” says Fall River detective Gary Barboza.

Three other local police departments – in Swansea, Westport and Dartmouth, all in the vicinity of the Freetown State Forest – also deploy drones, primarily for search and rescue.

Not all local Massachusetts police departments have joined the drone bandwagon, however.  In Worcester, the town council tabled a proposal to purchase drones for its local police department, citing budget concerns.  The council also said it lacked a consensus on whether the drones were needed to complete the police department’s mission.

Worcester’s move contrasts sharply with last week’s decision by the police department in Boston – the state’s largest, by far – to purchase its eighth “”high-performance” drone.  The department’s also creating its first full-fledged drone tactical team, with 12 specially-trained officers.

All told, nearly two dozen police departments in Massachusetts have publicly announced drone programs.  But with tactical successes in towns like Freetown mounting, many more are expected to come on line in 2023.

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