The Modesto City Council recently approved spending $750,000 on a GippsAero GA8 plane for the police department on February 28.
The biggest draw for the council — who voted unanimously for the spending — was the plane’s camera system that can rotate 360 degrees and allows for high-quality livestreaming at far distances.
The aircraft, an Australian-made 2012 GippsAero GA8 with a FLIR Star Safire 380 HD imaging system and other features, will cost the city $741,578, and is expected to arrive in April.
According to Valencia, when he looked at a video shot from the airplane at 3,500 feet elevation, he could see something two miles away as if it was right in front of him.
The assistant police chief believes the aircraft will allow police to respond to situations faster than officers on the ground and provide video evidence they need to catch criminals — whether it be reckless drivers, burglars or other perpetrators.
Valencia said that officers on the ground can see the video in real time, and can even superimpose a street map onto the video feed to help with navigating.
The aircraft, like helicopters, should also make vehicle pursuits safer by allowing officers on the ground to fall back during pursuits.
Police also praised the aircraft’s camera system for being able to provide intel to officers, such as whether a suspect is armed, whether he is alone and what his demeanor is before an encounter.
The officer in the airplane will be able to respond to calls from dispatch and route the location into the camera system, which will immediately focus in on that location and start recording, police said.
Asked why the agency is choosing to purchase an airplane over a helicopter, Valencia said helicopters are more helpful for conducting search and rescue missions or accessing areas that vehicles cannot enter.
Given the flat geography of Modesto, this would not be necessary. In addition, helicopters are several times more expensive than the GippsAero aircraft and are double the cost to operate and maintain.
According to a police department report, the aircraft is projected to cost $394,000 a year to maintain. $60,000 of that amount goes to civilian pilots who are hired to fly the plane.
The money will come from the city’s traffic safety fund.
The GA8 is a light utility aircraft that can carry seven passengers and is often used for search and rescue, surveillance and observation, and for carrying freight or skydivers.
Modesto will purchase the plane from CNC Technologies, a company based in Southern California.
The aircraft is not commonly used. According to reports, there are roughly 250 in use globally, with 61 in the United States, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Other agencies using this type of aircraft include the California Highway Patrol, the San Bernadino County Sheriff’s Office and the Orange County Sheriff’s Office.
The plane has already been inspected by an FAA-certified mechanic and its maintenance logs have been viewed.