RCMP, AltaLink embracing eyes in the sky
Getting a bird’s-eye view gives police and power companies a powerful tool for taking care of business on the ground.
On Friday, police officers patrolling Hwy 2 by helicopter nabbed 28 drivers in just four hours, writing 35 tickets for a variety of traffic infractions.
At about the same time, Calgary-based AltaLink started dispatching its eyes in the sky to inspect power lines that are inaccessible or difficult to see from the ground.
People change their driving habits when they see a police car, said Sheriff Jason Graw, media relations officer for the Airdrie Integrated Traffic Unit — a joint operation of the Alberta Sheriffs and RCMP.
Officers in a helicopter are harder to see, but they get a bigger picture of what’s happening on the ground, said Graw. So helicopter patrols are able see driving infractions that are often difficult to observe from the ground, including tailgating, passing on the shoulder and other aggressive driving behaviours.
The practice of traffic surveillance from the air, once common in Alberta, was abandoned several years ago.
It has only recently been revived as a traffic enforcement tool.
New signs have been posted on highways where helicopter patrols can be expected. There are specially-marked enforcements sections on Hwy 2 and elsewhere. The pavement markings are used by the helicopter observer to determine a vehicle’s rate of speed.
“This gives us the ability to really go after the people who are really flying out there,” said Graw.
Helicopter patrols are unlikely to be frequent, given the expense and the need to have the flight crews available for other duties, he said.
However, he is confident that air patrols will have an impact on driving behaviour, because drivers will never know where the helicopter will be or if their actions have caught the crew’s attention.
“Really, the message we want people to take away from this is that we could be up there at any time,” he said. “The more we can do it, certainly, the happier we’ll be, and I think a lot of motorists will be happy with that, too, because they’ll see some of these more aggressive drivers getting pulled over.”
For AltaLink, the sky-high advantages are similar.
The company maintains 12,000 km of power lines throughout the province. Helicopter crews see things from the air that would escape notice from the ground, like areas where trees are impeding the lines, structures built on the right of way and lightning damage on power poles, said Amanda Sadleir, communications advisor for the power line company.
AltaLink has been performing annual air patrols for 40 years, Sadleir said on Monday. This year’s program is underway in Central Alberta and should wrap up by Sept. 7.
The helicopter’s ability to fly close to the ground, hover and even land make it far more suitable for inspections than fixed-wing aircraft, said Sadleir.
For every hour in the air, AltaLink’s helicopter crews spend an additional four hours entering the data and photographs they have collected.
Helicopter crews get as close to urban areas as possible, but do their best not to disturb residents and farm animals, she said.