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Using Drones in Your Investigations with Jay Paulino

By Isaac Peck, Publisher

Over the last two decades, new technologies have given private investigators an increasingly expanded set of tools, gadgets, and equipment they can use to capture surveillance, gather intel, and provide better information and service to their clients.

Drones are a perfect example.

The use of drones in cases continues to multiply. Already widely used by all three branches of the U.S. military, civilian police departments are now exploring using drones in mass to help monitor and report in communities. However, for Private Investigators, the use of drones in investigations is still a budding practice. Working PI sat down with Jay Paulino, CPI and CALI’s 2022 Private Investigator of the Year, to learn more about how he has integrated drones into his practice and what he sees for the future of this dynamic technology.

Question: Tell me a little about your background and how you got started as a private investigator?

Paulino: I was in college studying Criminal Justice and I attended a job fair where a PI company came and gave a presentation. I was really impressed with their presentation and the work really interested me. At the end of his presentation, he gave one-on-one interviews looking to hire someone in the San Diego area. He saw something in me and gave me an opportunity. I got my foot in the door doing surveillance for worker’s comp cases—doing stakeouts, mobile surveillance, filming undercover with pinhole cameras. There was a lot of fun stuff like that—a lot of adrenaline on some of those cases. I accumulated my hours and eventually got licensed with the state of California.

I ended up dropping out of college and started working as a PI when I was just 19 years old. From a young age I’ve had to look out for myself and live on my own, so when this opportunity presented itself to me, I jumped on it. I eventually moved on to doing internal investigations for insurance carriers as an Insurance Examiner. I investigated material damage and liability.

After working on the insurance carrier side for a few years, I ended up doing internal investigations for plaintiff law firms. From there, I had an opportunity with a law firm from Florida that wanted to open up an office here in San Diego and they were looking for a bilingual investigator.

I’ve been with my firm, Casey Gerry Schenk Francavilla Blatt & Penfield, LLP, for six years. I work on a lot of wrongful death cases, auto accidents, automobiles that hit pedestrians, fire investigations, defective product manufacturing, premises liability cases, and more. My firm also specializes in aviation cases, brain injury cases, and sports injury cases—so I get to work on a variety of very interesting cases.

One of the most impactful things about my work is seeing how people’s lives can change in an instant. Some of the clients we represent have just graduated from University, they’re ready to take on their dream job, or they’re about to get married, and then there’s an accident and half of their body is paralyzed or they’re injured so badly they can barely speak or can’t answer simple questions. I see a lot of people get their lives taken away from them. They’re very hard cases to look at.

Question: When did you first start using drones? How have you used drones in your investigations?

Paulino: Right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we were working a wrongful death case where a cyclist was hit by a car on an onramp and passed away. It happened before sunset so there was still daylight. I went out there on foot and took photographs of the area. I put a dash-cam on my car and did a perspective of what that must’ve looked like for the defendant. We went back out on the one-year anniversary of the accident to get the same lighting conditions, at the same time, etc.

We went with an expert who specializes in reconstruction work. This expert had brought a drone with him to help do the site reconstruction. He flew the same route the defendant was driving and got an aerial perspective of the scene. We noticed shadows from a nearby tree. Was lighting a factor for the driver? Was sunlight a factor? Looking at it from a birds-eye view, we were able to notice additional details that I hadn’t seen when I was on foot. We got a better view overall of the scene—it really allowed for a broader perspective.

So that was really my inspiration. I remember asking him a lot of questions. What type of drone is that? How does this work? How do you get a license to do that? The COVID-19 pandemic hit almost right after that happened, so things slowed down a lot for everyone. I met many people for in-person interviews for my job, so I couldn’t do that for a while. I had a lot more time to explore using drones as a tool. During the pandemic, I did some soul searching and was really asking how I could be more effective as a PI, what I could do differently, how I could improve the quality of my work, and so on.

I was really excited to integrate drones into my practice. I learned I needed to get my Remote Pilot Certificate and started studying for it. I took my exam and was fortunate enough to pass on my first try. I got my certificate and my insurance and shortly after I began using drones at my site inspections when I was looking at crashes.

When we would do presentations on the cases for the partners at our firm, I started presenting the aerial photographs and videos from my drone and everyone was really impressed. Work quality was massively improved.

Before I had a drone, we would go out on foot if we were working a catastrophic collision on the freeway. Typically, we’d put on safety vests, park on the shoulder, get out and walk along the freeway on the shoulder and take photos of the skid-marks and debris. An on-foot inspection of a freeway incident can only tell so much. It’s also dangerous—something can go wrong out there. I’d also have to carry a lot of gear with me.

With my drone, I can park somewhere a lot safer. I don’t have to park on the shoulder. I can fly my drone from a safe location and get better photographs of skid marks and debris. You need a steady hand when taking pictures and photos, but the drone takes care of that for me. I’m not necessarily out in the hot sun and I don’t have to carry so much equipment. I’m working smarter, not harder. I can get better photographs and videos and get a better perspective with a drone. These drones can shoot in high resolution. It also helps us tell a story. In our profession, it’s all about storytelling. In my particular position, I work with attorneys who sometimes can’t go out there and look at the scene themselves. So, I can better serve the attorneys by showing them videos that can paint the whole picture and give them a full perspective.

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Question: Talk to us more about using drones in the field. What other types of investigation assignments might drones be useful in?

Paulino: Drones are useful in any assignment where a sky level perspective will help your investigation. They can also help you cover larger areas with less effort while also giving you a better work product.

Right now, I am mostly using my drone for personal injury and accident reconstruction, but I think there’s a world of opportunity out there. It’s been really interesting for me to speak to other PIs and hear how they are using drones in their investigations. Some PIs have told me that a drone can be a very good tool when doing investigations in public areas.

I think PIs can take it to a whole other level compared to what I’m doing. We can potentially use drones to help find missing people, or in surveillance work, and the list goes on.

Right now, there is a debate about using drones as it relates to being an invasion of privacy. The consensus so far is that you can fly a drone in public areas, but you can’t fly a drone to invade someone’s privacy.

The use of drones in the private sector and even law enforcement is just beginning. The Chula Vista Police Department here in San Diego, California started using drones a few years ago; they were one of the first law enforcement agencies to do that. Looking to the future, I see all kinds of professionals adding drones to their toolbox. We will continue to find new ways to do things—safer and better. I’m excited to see the career opportunities that drones will also bring to new users and new generations to come.

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Question: What advice do you have for private investigators interested in adding a drone to their practice?

Paulino: I encourage PIs to learn more about the FAA’s requirements and to study for their Remote Pilot Certificate (Part 107). Then get a drone and practice! I found it to be a lot of fun. I practiced a lot in a safe environment and that prepared me to use a drone in the field.

Because we’re using drones for commercial purposes, we need to get the Remote Pilot Certificate (Part 107). I attended an online school (Drone Pilot Ground School) in preparation for my Part 107 certificate. I studied for four months. The exam was actually pretty difficult. If I didn’t obsess over my studying the way that I did, I wouldn’t have passed. I had already made my appointment to take the test so there was no way out for me! I had to be ready by the date I had set for myself. Fortunate enough, after all those hours I put into it, I took the test and I passed.

In addition to getting your Remote Pilot Certificate (Part 107) to use drones commercially, PIs should carry insurance to cover liabilities. I currently use the DJI Mavic Pro 2, DJI Mini 2, and the Skydio 2 +. For beginners, I recommend the Skydio 2 + due to the autonomous advantages and additional sensors for obstacle avoidance. Having these extra features helps fly the drone safely and assists the operator to avoid collisions. To have a safer experience, it also helps to understand the area where you will be flying. You want to be familiar with potential hazardous objects that could obscure your vision, cause a fire, cause a crash or an injury.

For drone insurance, I use an application on my iPhone by the name of SkyWatch. This app makes it convenient to purchase insurance and it’s also affordable. I can purchase insurance at a lower cost when buying it for a specific date and time, versus paying more to hold a monthly policy. If you are not flying your drone 5 days out of the week for work, I recommend buying drone insurance for specific dates and times. It can be very inexpensive.

About the Author
Isaac Peck is the Publisher of Working PI magazine and the President of OREP Insurance Services, offering customized professional and general liability insurance solutions to private investigators and security firms. He received his master’s degree in accounting at San Diego State University. He can be contacted at isaac@orep.org or (888) 347-5273.

We’re always listening: Send your story submission/idea to the Editor: kendra@orep.org.

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