OGDEN -- The Utah Highway Patrol is banking on military technology to help conduct crash investigations more thoroughly and wrap them up more quickly.
UHP is using a small fleet of remote-controlled aircraft to snap photos above accident scenes. Investigators later turn to the photos and special software to reconstruct the accident, allowing them to spend less time investigating at the site.
UHP used one of the small remote-controlled helicopters to probe a fatal crash in Sardine Canyon on Feb. 1. In that accident, a truck crossed the center line into oncoming traffic and slammed head-on with a small passenger car. The crash killed two people.
"You cannot obtain evidence like this from the ground," said UHP Sgt. Brad Horne, the only UHP official in Utah who operates the helicopters.
Horne is dispatched all over the state. He may be working a crash in Logan one day and be in St. George the next.
It took several months of formal out-of-state training and on-the-job experience for Horne to learn to fly the aircraft.
The aircraft aren't used on most crash scenes, but that should change later this year.
UHP is currently equipping its fleet of five with autopilot systems that will allow about 30 troopers across Utah to use them without undergoing extensive training.
The choppers are manufactured by the Morgan-based company Leptron, and when equipped with autopilot and night vision, they can cost around $50,000 each.
The choppers are made of carbon fiber and weigh 37 pounds. Their 10-horsepower engines can travel up to about 80 mph, and the craft can fly about 400 feet off the ground, even in wind, heavy rain or snow.
Horne operates the aircraft up to 80 feet above a scene during an investigation.
Troopers place markers on the ground that show up in the aerial photos, allowing investigators to accurately measure everything in the crash pictures.
It takes about 90 minutes on average for UHP to mark up a crash scene.
When the helicopters are used, troopers simply place the measurement markers and the aircraft can begin taking pictures within minutes.
"That's huge," Horne said. "We can open up the road to traffic sooner."
Horne recounted an apple truck crash about 10 years ago on Interstate 84 in Weber County in which the choppers could have been useful.
"It took four hours to mark it up and measure everything," Horne said. "If we had this, it would have taken 10 minutes."