A Practical Use for Quadcopters During a Surveillance for Private Investigators- #117

A private investigator in Oregon responded to my video titled, Drones for Surveillance. Are Private Investigators Using Them? The video was basically the video version of an article I had written about the topic of drones for private investigators.

The Oregon investigator messaged me the following:

Quadcopter surveillance youtube

Andrew, I am a private investigator out of Oregon.  I enjoy watching your youtube videos and think you do a great job.  Though I agree with most of your content I would like to point out a case that I had that may change your opinions on Drones for our kind of work.  I had a rural surveillance in the country and the claimants house was almost impossible to get to and there were no trespassing signs everywhere.  Being a person who likes to get the job done I used a drone (quadcopter I think, not sure the difference).  I didn’t perform surveillance with the drone or even get pictures.  My drone allowed me to see what the camera saw and either just watch or record.  I did not record.  I got over the row of trees blocking me and found the claimant’s vehicle.  I had not been provided any vehicle information previously and in Oregon it is difficult to get DMV information on the fly and this was a rush case.  My “drone op” (for lack of a better term) gave me a vehicle description and plate number on a case where I had almost no information.  I parked down the street and waited for said vehicle to pass my position and then it was business as usual.  It was an insurance case and in the report I just indicated “it was learned the claimant drove XYZ vehicle bearing XYZ plate” .  This case had been attempted by other investigators with limited luck but I was able to get video (with camcorder not drone) and vehicle and property description where others had failed.  Sometimes in a case all you have is bread crumbs but when you follow them they may lead you to the loaf you are looking for (no pun intended lol) I think any investigator worth his salt could use a drone and not violate the subject/claimant/target (choose your term) rights.  We deal with it everyday when we do surveillance.  I look forward to your response and happy hunting.

First Impressions of This Private Investigator’s Use of a Quadcopter

This Oregon private investigator provides a great example of how he used the a drone and didn’t appear to break any “privacy laws” as he was able to identify vehicles associated to his subject.  He didn’t video tape from the aerial advantage.  He was able to identify a vehicle associated to the residence and eventually identify his subject which is critical during a surveillance.

Truthfully I don’t know any case law related to this as I don’t think it can be considered trespassing because the quadcopter is in the sky.  And because no video documentation was obtained he doesn’t have to justify documentation that wasn’t in plain view.

If he is ever required go to court for the insurance surveillance he worked he may have to explain how he was able to explain he obtained some of the information that was learned.  I truthfully don’t know if revealing that information was determined because of using a quadcopter would matter but it is something to consider.

Many clients don’t want investigator to spell out exactly how they learned information even when the information they learned is by completely legal efforts.  So when this investigator writes “it was learned the claimant drove XYZ vehicle bearing XYZ plate”, this is common verbiage used in reports.

Did a Quadcopter Have to be Used?

In this Oregon investigator’s message to me he stated that he did not know of any vehicles that were associated to his subject because of the residence’s rural location.  He didn’t have any vehicles associated with the individual because it was a rush case.

I sympathize with this investigator because I have worked files like this far too many times.  With that being said there were probably a few other routes the client or the company could have taken in getting vehicle information that would help him identify his subject during his surveillance in this rural location.

I have a feeling that this investigator knows what they are doing so I am not really writing these alternatives for him but rather for other investigators that might think going to quadcopter first is a good idea.


Get the Plate Numbers Ahead of Time

Truthfully it has been a long time since I have worked a case in Oregon.  It has been even longer since I have discussed with any Oregon investigator what is needed to get vehicle information for the subject they are conducting surveillance on.

The last thing I remembered (a long time ago) is that investigators could call a phone number and do some specific dialing to find out information.

Needless to say in a perfect world a private investigator would run plate numbers ahead of time.  And if there was not enough time then the client would allow for the time for the investigator to run the vehicle information.

Venture down a driveway?

Drive Down the Long Driveway

Rural surveillance files stink.  Investigators try to figure out their files from a distance without alerting neighbors or the individual the surveillance is being conducted on.

On many occasions, I have driven down the long driveway associated to a rural surveillance and simply turned around when I reached the claimant’s residence just to write down what vehicles are present at the residence.

It is a nerve-racking and scary experience when doing this.  I always have a pretext ready in case I am confronted by anyone. And when I do this I pray that no one is awake to see me turn around.

Not all rural locations are the same and I don’t always do this or have to do this in the exact manner that I am trying to articulate. The main idea is to identify vehicles at the residence.

Establish a Surveillance Position on the Closest Route of Departure From the Residence

Parking on the route of departure with a view the subject’s driveway or main street is another way to figure out who or what vehicles are associated to the subject’s residence.

I only recommend this if an investigator can do this covertly and can blend into the area.  Typically this is a last resort for me because it involves following many vehicles that can potentially not be my subject.

It’s not a perfect tactic and can be difficult to pull off but sometimes it works.

Generally speaking in my experience it is more trouble than it is worth and to pull it off seamlessly it requires at least 2 investigators to work the surveillance.


Phone Pretext Your Subject

There have been many times in my career that I have not had vehicle information for someone.  This happened a great deal while I worked in California and while working in Washington.  I also had the opportunity to conduct preliminary investigators for investigators all over the United States while working as a case manager.  I had to try and identify vehicles for investigators who didn’t have access to vehicle registration for the people they were to conduct surveillance on.

To do this it requires a phone number for your subject (so hopefully you would at least have that).  A phone pretext using a survey or a package delivery pretext will give the investigator the opportunity to discuss vehicles associated to a subject.

Is Using a Quadcopter Better?

I don’t know if using a quadcopter is better or worse than using any other tactic I described in this article.  Many times it depends on the information an investigator has or the tactics they are comfortable with to find out information.

And over the past several months more and more quadcopters are being created that make flying them easier than ever and make them easy to return to the owner without any quadcopter flying experience.  And these easy to fly quadcopters are nearly affordable for everyone.

Final Thoughts

I don’t know if I am ready to use a quadcopter just yet to find out information on during a surveillance.  I personally would like to see quadcopters used in more mainstream ways first.  I don’t think that many investigators are doing what this Oregon investigator described just yet.

And even if they are using quadcopters I would have to imagine that the ideal times to use a quadcopter are far and few between.   In this investigator’s scenario, it worked well and I appreciate him sharing his experience with me.

With the advancement in quadcopter technology making it easier for anyone to fly quadcopters, is anyone else using them in a similar manner?

Also here are some of the more user-friendly quadcopters on the market.


  1. I do own and fly a Quadcopter Drone. As yet I do not use it in my investigations due to restrictive bureaucracy from the FAA. Big Brother as usual makes life difficult for the little guy just trying to make a living.

  2. Good to know great tips on how to use it