Our Top 10 Favorite Pieces of Gear (And Some From Our Wishlist)

The Private Investigation Gear We Use


We are excited to announce that this article has been published by Pursuit Magazine! Check out the published version.


Gear is a very important part of any private investigator’s toolbox. The tools of our trade are usually pretty high-tech and oftentimes quite expensive. Private investigators are usually very opinionated on gear and we can talk about it nonstop if you let us (and sometimes even if you don’t). We are very vocal in our support of one brand or another and whether this will help us get evidence better or that will allow us to be just a wee bit sneakier. However, ultimately the investigation equipment we choose needs to accomplish three things: it needs to be useful, it needs to be durable, and it needs to be high-quality. If it makes us feel more covert and look super-cool in the process, all the better.

What Investigation Gear Do We Use on the Regular?

This is a list of our favorite indispensable pieces of private investigation gear we use while on surveillance:

  1. Camcorder – Our camcorder of choice is the Panasonic HC-V770 (~$499). It is a full-HD camcorder with a wide range of available accessories. It has a 20x optical zoom and 50x digital zoom. We want the most optical zoom we can get and this camera doesn’t disappoint. Between optical and digital, always go with the most optical zoom you can afford. Optical zoom is a measure of the physical movement of the lens, whereas digital zoom is some kind of internal software wizardry that usually ends up pixellating the image if you take it too far. The more optical zoom, the better. Don’t go for the 4K version (the HC-VX981K). It’s overkill and will needlessly chew through your memory card.
  2. Tripod – The Sirui 3T-35K Plus is a very good all-in-one. This baby can act as a monopod or a self-standing tripod. It comes with a ball head for adjusting the angle as well as an extension bar to give you a little more height. The three extending “feet” lock in place and give you a firm and flat support for your camera or camcorder. The legs can also fold in, turning the device into a very functional monopod. We do wish it were a bit taller, as we find that we have to either hold it or rest it on our thigh to give it the reach it needs to hold the camera high enough to see out the window. But, that’s really the only complaint. It’s built like a tank and feels very well-made.
  3. Dropcam – A dropcam is a small, battery-powered camera that can be hidden in a particular location and keeps an eye out while (hopefully) remaining undetected. They are motion-activated and, like a trail cam, will start recording when they sense something moving within their field of view. We usually use them in hotel hallways or lobbies to catch people going into or leaving hotel rooms with people they aren’t supposed to be with, etc. There are two types: rotating and fixed. The rotating type (~$125) is a small camera (much smaller than your cell phone) that has a small rotating head on it where the lens is located. This allows us to place it somewhere and rotate the head on an angle to specify where we want the camera to look. The fixed type (~$130) is slightly larger but doesn’t rotate. It does, however, have night vision, and we LOVE night vision!
  4. Keychain Camera – If we need to leave the safety and comfort of our cars and follow someone into a particular location, we need a video camera that is virtually undetectable. This one does the job. This is a camera that is disguised as a key fob. We put it on our keyrings and it looks exactly like that thing you use to unlock your car. Trust me, you can’t tell the difference. We can put it on a table or hold it in our hands while we follow a subject into the mall or the grocery store and get every move they make in public. It takes both video and still photographs. It’s actually kinda unnerving that these things exist, but we use them all the time. We like the Lawmate PV-RC200HD2 (~$300).
  5. Dashcam – This one is really more for our safety. Much like police dashcams that keep them honest and record any altercations that may take place, we use a dashcam for much the same reason. If we are following a subject in our vehicle and there is an altercation with a subject (they do happen), then we want everything on record. Not only does it help us should we need to go to trial, but it can also help law enforcement investigate should the unthinkable happen. Vantrue makes excellent dashcams and is the brand we chose. For our surveillance vehicles, we went with the Vantrue X4 UHD (~$179). This one IS 4K and for good reason. It records on a loop and gets very fine detail within a wide field of view. This can also help us document the location where we lost a subject, should that happen (*hangs head*). Oh, and this one has night vision, also!
  6. Binoculars – This one should be obvious. The closer we get to the person we are watching, the more likely we are to get spotted (“burned”), which would ruin the investigation. Therefore, we try to do everything we can to sit as far away from our subject as possible. Therefore, we need a pair of binoculars handy to zoom in and watch a location from afar. Many investigators simply use the zoom feature on their camcorders, but we feel that it is better to maintain our camera on a fixed position of interest and do the majority of our surveillance through the lens of a good pair of binoculars. We chose the Nikon Monarch 5 (~$325) and have no complaints whatsoever. It has a 12x zoom and is waterproof, fog-proof, and has a rubberized body in case you fumble and it gets away from you.
  7. Portable Power – We have to keep all of this gear powered up and running. Therefore, for longer surveillance jobs, we have to carry our power with us. We can’t always start our car and use the vehicle’s power adaptor. So, we need battery-powered capabilities. For strict battery power, we chose the Anker PowerCore 20100mAh (~$45 each) with 4.8V output and we carry at least two of them with us at all times. There is nothing worse than having the goods in your sights and having your battery go kaput on you. We have backups of our backups and everything is always fully-charged when we walk out of the office. Clients don’t want to hear that you missed out on the evidence they need because you were too careless to make sure you had juice when you needed it. These are invaluable and, in actuality, we will probably end up getting a couple more. If we are able to keep our vehicle running, then a power inverter can be a lifesaver. This can keep your phone, iPad, computer, etc. all charged and ready to go. The Bestek 300W 4.2V power inverter (~$35) is what we chose and it’s very nice. It comes with two 110V plugs and two USB charging ports.
  8. Air Compressor/Battery Jumpstarter – You know the saying, “S**t happens?” Murphy rules the road when you are 300 miles from home and all alone at 3 am in the middle of nowhere and you can’t get a signal on your phone to call AAA when your battery dies from charging all this cool crap. Well, Pilgrim, if you have the Clore Jump-n-Carry JNCAIR 1700 (~$230) with you, then you can consider your bacon saved. This thing has an integrated air compressor and battery charger in it that can get you back on the road like it never happened. No need for a second vehicle to jump you. It is completely self-contained. If you have a flat and your tire is beyond saving (i.e., blowout, etc.) make sure to always have a spare tire, jack, flashlight, and flares on hand to repair any flats along the way.
  9. Tablet – This one seems to be on everyone’s list lately and is self-explanatory. We go paperless when we can and, these days, a tablet is simply a must. You could use your cell phone, but if you have your GPS up and a call comes through while you’re trying to check an address change the client just gave you, etc, etc, etc, it helps to have something else to go to with this stuff. Plus, note-taking apps, such as Notability, can help you keep all your pertinent information right there in front of your face so you don’t have to go looking for it. This allows us to keep our phones free and not get tangled up in multi-tasking on a single device. We also have our CROSStrax case management app up so that we can keep any case-related information handy, as well as edit the master case file as we go.
  10. Digital Camera – Honestly, we will probably get roasted by our colleagues for this, but we really don’t use the digital camera all that much. The cameras on cell phones these days are more than adequate for time/date stamp photos and to snap a pic of an address or a vehicle or someone coming in or out of somewhere. In all honesty, we use the camera on our cell phone way more than we do the digital camera. However, every once in a while, when we need a lot of zoom on a still image and don’t think the evidence would be better suited in video format, we will whip out our Nikon CoolPix 950 and use that sweet, sweet 83x optical zoom to snap a quick pic or two of what we see. But, 90% of the time, we either get it on video (camcorder) or we just use our iPhones.

And Now for the Stuff We WISH We Had (or could afford):

  1. A DRONE! – Man-oh-man, do I wish I had a drone.
  2. SiOnyx Aurora Night Vision Camcorder – Again, NIGHT VISION! And this baby does it in FULL COLOR!!
  3. Rode RODECaster PRO Podcast Production Studio – The creme de la creme of outboard podcasting sound engineering and I want one!
  4. Zoom H6 6-track Portable RecorderPodcast from anywhere? Yes, Please!
  5. DefCon Countermeasure Sweep Equipment – DefCon makes excellent countermeasure sweep equipment, but they are PRICEY! One day, if the demand is there, we will upgrade. DD1206, PRO-10G, DD802, and the crown jewel DD1207!

And that’s it! This pretty much sums up the private investigation gear and equipment we use every day and shows a few of the things on our wishlist. If you are in the biz, do you agree or disagree with our suggestions? Leave a comment down below if you use some of the same things we do or if you think what you use is better.

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Can Private Investigators Use Drones?

In this article, we discuss the use of retail drones (quadcopters) within the private investigation sector.


DISCLAIMER We are not attorneys and you should not construe anything in this article as legal advice! Please use common sense and follow the statutes of the individual states in which you practice.


What is a Drone?

A drone is any vehicle that can be piloted remotely for the purposes of reconnaissance or surveillance. There are generally two categories of drones: the quadcopter type and the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

The quadcopter is the “civilian” version and is the one most in use today. Quadcopters have many uses and are available to the general public from retailers such as Amazon or Best Buy. Their costs can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars. They have a wide range of accessories and upgrades that can change the vehicle’s usability. These accessories can help the user customize and tailor the device to his or her desires. The quality of the images these products produce and the range of these devices is far inferior to that of an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV.

A UAV is generally considered the “aircraft type” of drone and is the type most commonly associated with government agencies and the military. Quadcopters do not have anywhere near the same capabilities as military drones. UAV’s are primarily used for national security and/or military applications. They have very powerful cameras and can even launch weapons on a specific target from the air. Their uses and specs are highly classified and far outside the scope of this article.

In this article, we will only be discussing the far more common quadcopter variety and how it relates to private investigations.

How are Drones Used in Private Investigations?

The military, scholars, engineers, law enforcement agencies, hobbyists, and private investigators all use drones for various purposes and to fulfill a wide range of needs. Within the private investigation sector, drones can be a very beneficial tool.

For example, they can be useful in litigation cases requiring aerial footage of a crime scene or search grid, as well as aiding in the collection of evidence. Furthermore, drones can have surveillance benefits when staking out a possible location, in helping the investigator decide possible ingress and egress locations for a particular business or residence, as well as discovering whether other vehicles may be present at a particular location.

The investigator must exercise caution and discretion when using a drone for surveillance. We will get into some of the legal pitfalls of drone use in a later section.

Drones are also used to assist law enforcement and private investigators with accident reconstructions. Drone mapping software is extremely helpful in the reconstruction process. For example, DroneDeploy offers a quality software program to aid investigations where professional aerial imagery might be useful.

Drones can also allow an investigator the ability to document construction sites, sinkholes, or disaster areas. Aerial drones can also help locate a hidden property in a person’s backyard, the same way law enforcement uses helicopters to search for marijuana grow fields.

Drones are also beneficial for pre-surveillance recon. They can help determine routes available to your subject, and safely assist the private investigator with locating the subjects’ vehicle. When in need of aerial imagery, hiring a private investigator to conduct surveillance of an area is substantially less expensive than hiring a pilot to obtain information and photography within the elements.

Drones allow a private investigator to obtain real-time imagery of properties and are far superior to online tools such as Google Earth.

Why Not Just Use Google Earth?

Google Earth, when used correctly, can be a valuable tool for the private investigator. It can allow the PI to look for changes in the environment, regions of topography and surrounding areas to help assist in a case. It can also allow us to map out roadways and give us a glimpse of a location to aid in determining possible surveillance locations. However, there is currently no way to confirm the authenticity of the footage obtained via Google Earth. Trust in Google is the only validation we have that the information in Google Earth is even real. Because of Google Earth’s lack of any form of real-time validation, one cannot be certain that alterations haven’t taken place. It simply cannot establish a timeline of real-time imagery and events. And that makes it lacking.

For these reasons, Google Earth cannot be considered physical evidence within a court of law and Google Earth alone is usually inadmissible as evidence. However, the use of aerial drone imagery alongside Google Earth can help show how the topography has changed since Google captured the images. For example, construction vehicles may have damaged county sidewalks over time. This damage may have caused a jogger to trip, fall, and sustain injuries. This evidence would be valuable to an attorney in joining the construction company and homeowner in the lawsuit. Evidence of environmental changes can be beneficial to the outcome of the litigating case.

The requirements for proper and legal use of aerial surveillance within the constraints of the law sits in a gray area. For federal compliance, the FAA requires owners to register any and all unmanned aircraft for recreation and commercial use. Any user must follow this mandate, regardless of intended use. All vehicles MUST be registered with the FAA, with no exceptions.

The local statutes vary from state to state. Within the State of Texas where we practice, the law does not permit drone use for human surveillance. Private property surveillance is permissible with consent from all property owners. This is only permissible if the investigator intends to destroy all obtained imagery. Always check the statutes within the state you are operating to make sure you stay within the law.

The following statute regulates the use of drones for the purposes of investigations in the state of TEXAS. Please consult the statutes in your state to see if they differ from those listed here.

State of Texas Statutes for Drone Use

GOVERNMENT CODE TITLE 4. EXECUTIVE BRANCH SUBTITLE B. LAW ENFORCEMENT AND PUBLIC PROTECTION

CHAPTER 423. USE OF UNMANNED AIRCRAFT

Sec. 423.003. OFFENSE: ILLEGAL USE OF UNMANNED AIRCRAFT TO CAPTURE IMAGE.

(a) A person commits an offense if the person uses an unmanned aircraft to capture an image of an individual or privately-owned real property in this state with the intent to conduct surveillance on the individual or property captured in the image. (b) An offense under this section is a Class C misdemeanor. (c) It is a defense to prosecution under this section that the person destroyed the image: (1) as soon as the person had knowledge that the image was captured in violation of this section; and (2) without disclosing, displaying, or distributing the image to a third party. (d) In this section, “intent” has the meaning assigned by Section 6.03, Penal Code.

Sec. 423.004. OFFENSE: POSSESSION, DISCLOSURE, DISPLAY, DISTRIBUTION, OR USE OF IMAGE.

a) A person commits an offense if the person: (1) captures an image in violation of Section 423.003; and (2) possesses, discloses, displays, distributes, or otherwise uses that image. (b) An offense under this section for the possession of an image is a Class C misdemeanor. An offense under this section for the disclosure, display, distribution, or other use of an image is a Class B misdemeanor. (c) Each image a person possesses, discloses, displays, distributes, or otherwise uses in violation of this section is a separate offense. (d) It is a defense to prosecution under this section for the possession of an image that the person destroyed the image as soon as the person had knowledge that the image was captured in violation of Section 423.003. (e) It is a defense to prosecution under this section for the disclosure, display, distribution, or other use of an image that the person stopped disclosing, displaying, distributing, or otherwise using the image as soon as the person had knowledge that the image was captured in violation of Section 423.003.

So, Can We Use a Drone for Investigations or Not?

We read these statutes to mean that investigators CAN use a drone in the course of an investigation IF:

  • The footage only shows images of public property and no people are present (or at least identifiable) in the image.
  • The investigator destroys any images of people or private property obtained during the course of the flight, as soon as he or she becomes aware that any persons or private property are present in the footage.
  • The investigator does not disclose, display, or distribute any footage of people or private property to any third party. This includes even your client(s). In other words, DESTROY ALL FOOTAGE obtained via drone as soon as you become aware there is a person or private property in the image.
  • It is a Class C Misdemeanor (and possible revocation of your license) if you fail to follow these statutes.

As long as you destroy any footage you get of people or private property, drones can be a wonderful recon tool. They can help you get the lay of the land, as well as information for a case that you might not be able to get any other way. Use common sense and good judgment. Don’t risk your license by doing something stupid, such as peeking inside the windows of a home. As long as you follow the statutes in your state and you keep your ethics and integrity in check, I don’t see any problem at all with using a drone during an investigation. But, as always, please check with the local statutes in the states where you practice to ensure you remain in compliance.

A Great App to Use

Kitty Hawk powers the FAA’s drone safety app. This app helps streamline drone operations and consolidates all processes into a single platform. Kitty Hawk has partnered with the FAA to create a software program to assist drone operators with airspace safety before flight check. The following is a press release from FAA Executive Director Jay Merkle:

“B4UFLY is now powered by Kittyhawk Dynamic Airspace which is our patented airspace controller for managing real-time flight restrictions, authorizations, and guidance. It’s the core technology in all our products that enables us to build tools that are responsive in real-time to the real-world changes and complexity that is our National Airspace System (NAS).”

This powerhouse combo offers reliable software that provides safety to drone operators and the public. I encourage you to check it out if you intend to use a drone during the course of your investigations. It’s that good.

Final Approach

In conclusion, drones are beneficial for many reasons to various professionals, including the military, law enforcement, educators, and private investigators. Aerial surveillance is a great tool to conduct pre-surveillance, property searches, surveys, accident and incident reconstructions, litigation support, and in the collection of evidence. This makes drones a very attractive tool, not only for private investigators but also for the attorneys and clients who hire them. Again, it is very important to conduct thorough research on the laws and regulations within your state to ensure the safety of the public we serve. As long as you use a drone within the bounds and constraints of the law, they can be a highly effective tool to help you with any investigation.

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