Manitowoc Police using drones to fight crime from the sky

MANITOWOC, Wis. (WBAY) - Small unmanned aircraft are becoming a common sight in the skies of Northeast Wisconsin.

And now police are using drones to find missing people, search for suspects or evidence or even deliver something like a phone to a hostage.

But with the new investigative tool comes a question about privacy.

A roughly five-pound drone is no doubt the smallest and fastest partner Manitowoc Police Officer Rick Ladwig has ever had.

But the capabilities of his new drone make it his new favorite.

"Crime scene documentation, accident scenes, search and rescue -- it makes our job a whole lot easier. We're not as limited to what we can do," says Ladwig.

Once Ladwig received his license from the FAA, the Manitowoc Police Department used forfeited funds from a fraud case to buy the $2,700 drone this summer.

The addition of a Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) camera, paid for by a $5,000 grant from the West Foundation, makes the difference.

Manitowoc says it's now the first police agency in Northeast Wisconsin licensed to fly a drone at night.

"Without that piece of equipment, it's just a camera in the sky. With the FLIR camera, you're able to see people that are hiding a whole lot easier than if you were up there just with a regular camera," says Ladwig.

The Infra-Red camera easily shows people on the ground as it identifies objects emitting heat.

Ladwig hopes this technology will help locate hiding suspects or missing people.

He'll start training Monday to use it in the search for lost hunters.

Ladwig has already put a drone to use about a dozen times, including to get an aerial view to see skid marks in a bus and dump truck accident, searching for evidence in a Mantiowoc burglary and looking for a missing child with autism.

This month, Ladwig became the first officer in this area to join the Wisconsin Air Coordination Group, allowing him to respond as mutual aid to other agencies who need eyes in the sky.

But this is just the beginning.

"We're looking at getting some more tools for the drones, some accessories, possibly a claw that could drop a phone if we needed it. If we have a hostage situation, a barricaded situation, drop a phone so we can communicate with that person," explains Manitowoc Police Chief Nick Reimer, who adds it could even be used to drop emergency items like life jackets.

Reimer says the department has already put in for grants to receive additional equipment, including a speaker that would allow them to make announcements to people and a spotlight that would help officers on the ground better see the missing or hiding person near the drone.

Aside from emergencies, police say they must follow strict privacy laws and obtain search warrants to fly the drone in certain places.

"At no point are we flying over random houses and recording video of what's going on in somebody's yard. You have an expectation of privacy. We're going to respect that," says Ladwig. "The state has written out... these are the set of circumstances that you can use your drone without getting a search warrant, so missing people, escaped people. Those are the cases where we can go and use our equipment and we don't have to get a search warrant, but if we are doing a crime scene, something larger in scale, normally we're already getting search warrants for those kinds of things, and we just incorporate the drone in with that search warrant."