Can Police Helicopters Detect Grow Operations?

Many people get worried when they see a police helicopter circling around their home, especially if they are growing illegal plants there. Many forums talk about ways to beat the police seeing into their homes or detecting their illegal operations but what can the police helicopter actually detect?

Police helicopters have a thermal imaging camera that detects areas of excessive heat in a building compared to its surroundings. Hot attics, basements, sheds & outbuildings are easily spotted if they are warm from the activities going on inside. At night these areas are easy to spot from the air.

Aside from the fact that some countries require warrants for the police to go actively look at a home, if a heat source is detected while using the camera on a different operation it could enable a further investigation from the police department, based on what the officers saw during that flight.

This article is not going into the legalities of what, when, and how the police can come to your home, rather than what can the police helicopter actually see.

What Can Police Helicopters See?

A few years ago I got the opportunity to spend a night shift as a passenger in a police helicopter and it was a great experience to actually see what the helicopter camera system could and could not detect.

Most police helicopters are usually equipped with an integrated camera system that can be maneuvered around by the police camera operator on board the helicopter to see in any direction and up to 120x zoom on some units.
The camera turrets usually consist of:

  • A HD Color Video camera
  • A HD Color Stills camera
  • A Infrared Thermal Imaging Camera

The camera operator can use this array of cameras in the following ways to detect possible or suspected grow operations:

Looking Through Windows

The HD color camera on the helicopter can easily look through windows that have no blinds or curtains drawn. Generally speaking, if you can see a helicopter through a window, they can see you if the camera was trained on you

To be able to see you there needs to be enough light in the room for the camera operator to see you and then the helicopter has to be low enough to see in. This can be done by positioning the helicopter further away and using the powerful zoom to see into the room.

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      At night however, the infrared camera is unable to see through glass. Glass blocks infrared light so the camera is unable to see in, this why the cover over the IR camera on the helicopter turret is made of Germanium. But, if the lights are on the occupants of the room can be seen at night using the HD color camera. Think of it like you standing on a high-rise balcony and using your phone’s camera to look into windows on adjacent buildings. The police camera is just the same.

      Again, we are not talking about the legalities of doing this, just what the capabilities are.

      Looking at Heat Sources

      The infrared camera in the turret is fantastic at distinguishing between heat sources in an area. Different items give off heat by different amounts and the camera shows this by using cold sources as dark, and hot sources as white, with the varying heat shown as shades of gray in between.

      I Wonder Why This Roof Is Hot!!?? – Source: West Midlands Police

      When a grow operation is housed inside a building the heat sources or lights that is used to help rapidly grow illegal plants heat up the walls and ceiling surrounding it. As the walls and ceiling heat up, their temperature will be higher than that of their surroundings, making it highly visible to the camera operator when flying over a city a night.

      When all the houses in a neighborhood have dark roofs or basements, but one house is significantly warmer, this will stand out and may give the police the need to further investigate. The same is true for an outbuilding, shed, garage, or any structure that is significantly warmer than the other structures around it.

      Looking at Hidden Clearings

      Another obvious sign that a grow operation is taking place is when the crops in the middle of a field or wooded area are suddenly different and look out of place from their surroundings. On the ground, the illegal grow operation could be completely out of sight and may require many miles of driving or hiking to reach them.

      From the air however, a clearing with ‘Odd Looking’ vegetation in there can easily stand out. A quick pan of the camera to that area can instantly reveal what is being grown. Even installing a camouflage net over the operation can make the area stand out and with enough scrutiny and inspection from the camera operator, it can soon become clear what is hiding underneath.

      Illegal Crops Growing with Legal Crops Easily Stand Out in the Air.

      In these situations, an undercover operation may ensue to discover who the owner is of the crops to ensure a prosecution can take place.

      How Many Plants Can Police Helicopters See?

      Unless the plants are growing out in the open then a police helicopter is not able to see individual plants. What they can see is the area that is excessively warm from the operation used to grow the plants.

      One or two plants grown in an individual’s home are most likely not going to require the many lights that give off heat to grow them. This will not give off enough heat to warm an area sufficiently to allow it to stand out from its surroundings.

      Once an occupant begins to get into large-scale growing using numerous high wattage lights, this is when the heat signature of the building will begin to rise. It is at this point that a police helicopter may stumble on them while using the camera on another mission.

      To Finish

      Police helicopters are able to see illegal growing operations via their camera when plants are being grown out in the open, they are in a room with windows that can be seen through, or when the area they are being grown in is radiated much more heat than its surroundings.

      Generally, a police helicopter is not tasked to go sweeping the neighborhoods at night to look for suspicious properties that seem to be very warm, but if the camera stumbles onto a building while on another mission, that property can be marked for them to come back and further investigate or sent for officers on the ground to further investigate.

      Further Reading

      Rick James

      I am an aviation nut! I'm an ATP-rated helicopter pilot & former flight instructor with over 3500 hours spanning 3 countries and many different flying jobs. I love aviation and everything about it. I use these articles to pass on cool facts and information to you whether you are a pilot or just love aviation too! If you want to know more about me, just click on my picture!

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