Lt. Keith Wuotinen operates one of the Novi Police Department’s two drones at the department in May. Wuotinen started the department’s drone program last year and started training other officers to operate the drones. Fourteen officers are certified to operate them now.

Lt. Keith Wuotinen operates one of the Novi Police Department’s two drones at the department in May. Wuotinen started the department’s drone program last year and started training other officers to operate the drones. Fourteen officers are certified to operate them now.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

Novi drone program aids police in finding people, fighting crime

By: Charity Meier | Novi Note | Published June 21, 2023

 Wuotinen shows what the drone’s controls look like.

Wuotinen shows what the drone’s controls look like.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


NOVI — The Novi Police Department has been able to increase its speed and efficiency in cases where time is of the essence over the last year, thanks to Lt. Keith Wuotinen and his idea to implement drones.

On May 4, Novi Police Cmdr. Kristie Gruenwald presented Wuotinen with a merit citation for his involvement in the creation of the program.

In April 2022, Wuotinen began the process of formally requesting that the City Council allow the purchase of two police drones. In May 2022, the purchase was approved, and in July, the department purchased the drones, which cost roughly $28,000 combined. By August, Wuotinen had started training 13 officers as certified police drone operators.

Wuotinen has been operating drones for around five years with his kid. He said he decided to try to bring them to the department, as he knew how much the drones could offer the city as a tool to help fight crime. He said he had read articles on the effectiveness of drones in law enforcement.   

“The usefulness of the drone could be for the kind of calls that we’re going on, like missing kids — especially kids that are young or adults that may have dementia or other risk factors that make it important to find them right away, where time matters,” said Wuotinen.

Prior to acquiring the drones, the Novi Police Department was getting assistance from nearby police departments that already had drone programs or requesting helicopter assistance from the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office and the Michigan State Police. Although the other departments were willing to help, they weren’t always available to do so.

According to Wuotinen, sometimes they had an hour response time or longer, and sometimes they were just not able to assist. The department’s own drones, he said, are always available, charged and ready to go.

“This way we are not waiting. An hour can make a big difference in how far somebody can get,” he said.

The Novi Police Department now has 14 officers certified to operate its two DJI Matrice 30T drones. The drones can fly up to 51 mph and are typically flown at 33 mph. The drones can fly for 30 minutes before needing to charge, so the department has a total of eight batteries to allow for two hours of constant flight time. However, as it has multiple chargers, the department is able to ofter constant drone surveillance at large events such as the Michigan State Fair. The drones feature thermal cameras and night vision.

Besides locating missing children and vulnerable adults, Novi police use the drones for traffic issues, event surveillance and more. In January, the department was able to locate an armed suspect using the thermal technology of the drones.

“The drone can be put up in the air, and it gets a viewpoint that we just don’t have, being on the ground,” said Gruenwald. “Being able to go up and have that bird’s-eye view, so to speak, all the time is extremely beneficial, because we can utilize it for traffic issues. We can utilize it for missing kids or trying to find vulnerable adults. We can utilize it when looking for a suspect or having a better understanding if we need to tactically enter in a particular way on some calls for service that we have. It just gives us a completely different way to look at the area so that we can do our job better.”

In order to operate the drones, each operator is individually certified with a Federal Aviation Administration Part 107 license. The department has an agency license, which allows anybody in the agency to fly the drones if the agency trains them.

Since implementing the program, the drones have aided in locating six missing kids and five vulnerable adults, and helped prevent two suicides. The drones have also aided in the investigation of bomb threats by clearing roofs and parking lot areas. This includes two bomb threats at Novi schools last fall and one at Nordstrom in April.

The drones helped to locate an armed burglary suspect who was hiding under a covered boat, as well as to prevent officers — thanks to the thermal cameras — from unnecessarily going into frigid waters after a car was found submerged in a pond.

The drones also provide officers with a better way to monitor traffic conditions. The camera offers officers the ability to see what is causing a traffic delay and to see if they can assist by directing traffic in a particular area.

“I thought it was very innovative, the way (Wuotinen) had presented options on being able to utilize it and how it would reduce our response time with some of the circumstances in getting information or being able to be more efficient and effective. I thought it was outstanding,” said Gruenwald. “Drones give officers the ability to patrol a relatively large area in a short period of time.”

Officers certified in drone operations practice with the drones weekly.

“I think it’s a great tool that helps us better serve our community, and if one of my own children were missing, I would want my local police department to do everything they could do in a very timely manner to look for my child,” Wuotinen said. “If I had a vulnerable adult in my family, same thing. I would want them to be able to have the tools that are available to them, things like drones, K-9 dogs, whatever it takes to find that missing person, because minutes count, especially in adverse weather, or if there are disabilities or special needs of a person, or if the child is of a young age. I can only imagine that I would want all those tools to be available so that they can have the best possible outcome in terms of finding that person, and the drone lets us do that.”