A plan by the Brunswick Police Department and the Federal Railroad Administration could make the department the first in the country to use drones to patrol for trespassers along railroad tracks in town.
The project, which is still in its infancy, also would make the Brunswick Police Department the first in Maine to use drones to look for potential criminal activity, rather than at a crime scene or at a crash site.
But both state and federal officials say they will not be writing tickets if the camera-equipped quadcopters spot people on railroad property.
“This device will only be used for detection, not enforcement,” said Desiree French, a spokeswoman for the railroad administration.
Brunswick is the current northern terminus of Amtrak’s Downeaster line, and if plans are approved to extend seasonal Downeaster service to Rockland, police would have to patrol an extra four miles of track, Brunswick Patrol Commander Thomas Garrepy said.
“We can cover a mile in every direction in a fraction of the time (with a drone),” Garrepy said. “It’s more of education and detection. So we’re going to detect the violations, and send an officer out to educate them. We’re trying to prevent fatalities before they occur.”
But major aspects of the initiative are still up the air. Federal funding to buy the equipment has not been approved. Brunswick police also must craft a local drone-usage policy for the department and ink a deal with federal authorities on how the technology will be used. If all goes smoothly, police hope to have the program up and running by early summer 2018.
Garrepy said the drone patrols would be limited to the train tracks, which are private property, and where the technology could help avert fatalities and lower the number of people who use the railway as a pedestrian cut-through.
The only other law enforcement agencies in Maine that own drones are the Maine State Police and the Cumberland County Sheriff’s office. Cumberland County’s aircraft has been sidelined, however, as the agency has waited for more than year for FAA approval of its license application.
Since the Maine State Police program began in August, troopers have logged about 50 flights – roughly 30 for training, and about 20 missions in response to incidents. Major Chris Grotton said most of those missions were to assist car crash reconstruction and investigations, in cases where an expansive aerial view of the roadway is helpful.
Twice in October, the state police drone was called to assist in other types of incidents. The first was Oct. 11, when a state police drone was deployed to Detroit, Maine, where it was used to inspect a silo where a chemical explosion injured three workers. Later that month, troopers helped the Maine Warden Service investigate the hunting-related shooting that killed 34-year-old Karen Wrentzel.
In Brunswick, Garrepy envisioned his department’s drone project as an extension of an existing partnership with the federal government.
The Federal Railroad Administration already has outfitted the tracks in the region with four wireless surveillance cameras, two in Freeport and two in Brunswick – to help police monitor the tracks for pedestrians. The cameras are motion-sensitive, and alert a dispatcher in Brunswick if something or someone enters the field of view. Police can then be dispatched to the area.
But Garrepy said the wireless technology is spotty. Sometimes the images freeze, or the cameras cannot establish an internet connection to transmit the picture.
The drone program could augment those monitoring efforts.
Drones already are in use by railroads across the country, Garrepy said. Rail companies use the nimble, camera-toting aircraft to inspect equipment and infrastructure quickly and at a lower cost than dispatching a helicopter or special team to cover the same area.
The same benefits make a drone attractive to the Brunswick department, Garrepy said. Officers cannot drive on the tracks, so patrols have to be conducted on foot, which is time consuming and dangerous, he said.
Compared to other modes of transportation, rail fatalities in Maine are relatively rare. In the last 10 years, eight people were killed by trains statewide. All of those people were considered to be trespassing on the tracks when they died, according to Federal Railroad Administration statistics.
By contrast, cars killed 18 pedestrians between January and November this year alone, according to the Maine Department of Transportation.
Brunswick’s drone initiative already has cleared an early hurdle.
In November, Garrepy pitched the pilot program to the Brunswick town council for approval – a step required by a 2015 state law that placed procedures and limits on how and when police agencies may use drone equipment. The council voted 7-2 to allow police to continue developing the effort.
But the department also must implement its own policy that is in line with a set of standards developed by the Maine Criminal Justice Academy on pilot training, mitigation of privacy concerns, how departments store and handle drone footage, and detailed information that must be recorded about each drone flight.
State law also requires prosecutor approval to use a drone for a criminal investigation, in addition to standard warrant requirements to conduct a search.
The state law was developed with input from civil rights groups, which have continued to recommend caution as drones are increasingly being used in police work.
But Grotton said police in Maine are governed by at least four layers of oversight when it comes to drones, starting with the Fourth Amendment restrictions on conducting police searches, state law, the minimum standards set out by the Criminal Justice Academy, and each department’s own guidelines.
“I’ve worked closely with the ACLU,” he said. “I understand the fear. We think these are good safeguards in Maine. Everyone’s always suspicious, I understand, but we’re being very careful.”
Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at: