Acting Sergeant Chief Pilot (RPAS) Rob Whittle has one of Queensland Police’s most unique roles. As Chief Pilot at PolAir, Whittle is in command of the service’s fleet of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) – better known as drones.
Sergeant Whittle’s aviation career started in 1995 when he learnt to fly while working in oil analysis. Gaining his pilots license, Whittle moved quickly to complete his instructor rating; opening doors to the young aviator.
Leaving the oil sector, Whittle pivoted to a role that aligned with his aviation passion, taking a short-term contract as an airways data systems officer at Brisbane’s air traffic control centre.
Completing this six-month contract, Whittle gained full time employment at Phoenix Air – a Coolangatta-based training and charter service. While Phoenix ultimately folded, Whittle was not dissuaded, later joining Flight West Airlines.
However following the collapse of Ansett and subsequent closure of Flight West, Whittle sought a change of direction.
With a baby on the way and a fresh focus on his future, he enrolled for the Police Academy. Today, he leads Queensland Police’s RPA service, PolAir. He spoke to Australian Aviation in July.
AA: What motivated you to join the Police service?
RW: I started at the Police Academy on the 13th May 2002, following the collapse of Ansett, which put all of us at Flight West Airlines out of a job. In November 2002, on completion of the Academy process and being sworn in as a Queensland Police Officer, I was posted to the Gold Coast. I had always been interested in police and had in fact applied soon after I left school but was not successful. This was an opportunity to follow another dream, as the variety of locations where you could work and the diverse nature of being able to join different sections, greatly appealed to me. I have worked general duties at various stations on the Gold Coast up until mid-2007. I then moved to Logan District and performed duty as a forensic crash unit investigator, (completing RaAUS crash investigation course and basic ATSB crash investigation course), then as a scenes of crime officer (forensics), over the course of approximately 10 years. I am now the Chief Pilot (RPAS), based with PolAir Queensland. They always say that once the aviation bug has bitten you never lose the passion. I am privileged to be working in my passion of aviation with Queensland Police as a sworn officer. My pilot’s licence is still current and I fly when I am able to juggling work and family time.
AA: What is the history of drone use at QLD Police, and how did you become involved?
RW: Queensland Police commenced using RPAS, (drones), back in 2013. We were the first law enforcement organisation to gain a ReOC from CASA. The drones were seen as a tool, which could be used to improve officer safety in certain situations. It was during my time at Brisbane police headquarters at Roma Street that I was introduced to drone use. I gained my RePL (Remote Pilot License) and used drones to record crime scenes and to assist in searching for evidence in hard to get to locations. A further opportunity arose and I was successful in becoming the Chief Pilot (RPAS) and to perform the role under PolAir Queensland. So after re-writing all of our operations and procedures manuals, testing with CASA, I started in the position I currently hold, in January 2018. Soon after a chief maintenance officer (also a sworn police officer) joined me and helps greatly with the day-to-day running of our operations in line with all the CASA regulations. They (the drones) are a good tool to also use in disaster situations recording the areas affected for a post disaster response and for situational awareness of where the fire or flood is spreading.
AA: What kind of drone platforms do you utilise? What benefits do these specific machines offer?
RW: We use a variety of different platforms that are fit for purpose for the role. They are not a priority use, but a part of the tool kit to assist specialised sections in getting the task completed safely.
Our forensic crash unit are starting to use the Phantom 4 RTK to map road crash scenes to a high level of accuracy, reducing the time spent on scene with the roads closed. Further forensic flights, using Inspires and/or Mavics are done at crime scenes to record the scene, providing investigators with a different perspective and providing the courts with information. When purchasing, we look at the camera specifications and what it can do as the primary instrument that is looked at, and then finding a platform that can carry it, or a drone that already has what is required. There are some awesome looking drones out in the market, but we need the camera to do a professional job of recording evidence and crime scenes, plus being easy to travel with at very short notice.
AA: What capabilities do drones add to the Police Service over conventional policing methods?
RW: The drones are quick to deploy, are safe, and are assisting with the timely recording of evidence and reducing the time spent on scene, especially in difficult terrain or where the structure is unsafe for humans to attempt to work on or in. Especially at major incident scenes it gives very good situational awareness, providing the means to keep all our officers and members of the community safe. They do not replace our manned aircraft assets, as there are areas we cannot fly in, the weather may not be on our side, and some jobs are more suited to manned aviation assets. They have been used as another tool for some search and rescues, assisting in providing aerial images of the area to be searched, and in searching difficult areas such as areas with heavy foliage around creek banks and other hard to reach on foot areas.
AA: What training is required in order to fly drones in a police role?
RW: We currently have 57 officers who have gained their RePL. We require all of our drone pilots to be licenced. Post licence course, which is completed through external organisations, the officers are inducted under our ReOC (checked to line), with a flight and theory test. Annually, every drone pilot has a flight check completed. Regularly through the year we run up skilling training days, improving the flying skills, improving the understanding of airspace, aviation chart reading, frequency management as well as manned aircraft procedures. This is to improve the understanding, professionalism and skill set of all of our inducted drone pilots, as the vast majority of them have not had any previous exposure to aviation.
AA: What do you see as possible developments in the future of drone technology?
RW: Technology is evolving at a rapid pace. We currently see trials in Canberra area with parcel delivery systems, and overseas (there are) drone taxis trials. The main limitation with battery-powered drones is battery life. We have a drone that weighs just over three kilomgrams and flies for 15 minutes on average given weather conditions. Trouble is, with a bigger battery to gain more flight time for this platform comes an increase in weight. The drone will then need more power to the motors to spin the props faster to create more lift to offset the increased weight to maintain height or climb! Or more efficient propellers!
AA: What advice would you offer to readers who aspire to fly drones or join the Police service?
RW: What I can say is follow your passion/interest as much as you can. Life is too short to not enjoy what you do. With the flying of drones, fly them safely, learn the rules and follow them. You must remember just because you are physically on the ground your drone is in airspace where manned aviation also is. With not getting a Recreational Pilots Licence, talk to the air traffic controllers and CASA, to improve your knowledge and gain a healthy respect for the environment you are flying in. For those wanting to join any police service, ask plenty of questions beforehand so you are aware of what is available and what opportunities may be available to you if you are successful in joining.