EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 16, 2013

Remote cameras aid Methuen police in underwater searches

By Jill Harmacinski
jharmacinski@eagletribune.com

---- — METHUEN — When searching for evidence, recovering a body or simply checking on the grates at the city’s water treatment plant, police have a new remote control tool to help them.

The department’s Remote Operated Vehicle has lights and two cameras that easily capture images underwater and takes video.The refurbished ROV unit, purchased from VideoRay for $22,000, gives trained officers a clear view of the city’s underwater.

The unit does not replace or replicate the expertise of trained divers, however.

“But it enables us to search in areas without putting a diver in peril,” said Sgt. Michael Havey, who recently traveled with Officer Scott Lever to VideoRay headquarters in Pennsylvania for 3-days of specialized ROV training.

Lt. Michael Pappalardo is also trained to use the system.

The ROV is tethered to a 130-foot cord, runs in just a foot of water and can drop to 500 feet. The unit has two video cameras; one in front that shoots in color and a black and white back camera.

During training at Forest Lake in West Methuen this week, the ROV shot pictures of vegetation, many fish, debris and even a fishing lure submerged under water. The camera on the ROV records what it’s seeing and also posts the date, time, depth and compass setting on video. Top speed is roughly 4 knots. Above water, the handler controls the ROV with a joystick, knobs and switches.

“It allows us to search a larger area faster and locate the target,” Havey said.

The system was already used to locate stolen cars submerged in the Merrimack River.

The ROV can operate from land or from the department’s marine patrol boat. It’s probably best used at Forest Lake and in the city’s stretch of the Merrimack River. Depending on depth and conditions, the system may also work in sections of the Spicket River.

This is the second ROV system the city has purchased with Emergency Management grant money, said Police Chief Joseph Solomon. A smaller system previously purchased was traded for the upgraded unit used now.

“We wanted the ability to do more,” Solomon said.

The Boston and Everett police departments, along with state police, have similar ROV systems, Havey said.

Soon, the department hopes to upgrade the system further, adding sonar, which helps locate targets in the water, and a gripper mechanism to pick up items.

The ROV is perfect for searches in areas you might not want to deploy a diver “but you’re willing to risk it with a machine ... It’s definitely better to risk a machine than a body,” Solomon said.

The department sought such a machine after a teen-aged girl went missing in Methuen several years ago. A diver located her body in the Spicket River. Looking for a way to enhance searches, Havey researched and later found the ROV system, Solomon said.

“It’s really a great tool. The worst thing that can happen is you put it in and you can’t see anything. So you take it out,” Solomon said.

Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter under the screenname EagleTribJill.