Drones and Police Use

Drones are now far more commonly being used by Police Forces across the UK to assist them in their fight against crime.

Although drones offer a cost-effective approach in many areas, they are not seen as a replacement for the National Police Air Service helicopters so we can expect to see them on duty for many years to come.

However, the speed with which a drone can be deployed, and the cost savings means that UAV technology is starting to offer benefit in many areas.


Wiltshire Police Drones

Wiltshire Police cite the difference in cost and time to charge a battery when compared to fuelling a helicopter as the main reason for their increased drone deployment.  This fact, alongside the smaller carbon footprint and the reduced safety risk, drones can offer ground teams an ‘eye in the sky’ at many more incidents than just the very serious ones.  Their fleet of Inspire 1 drones can be equipped with either HD or thermal cameras and help them search for missing people (or offenders), create aerial imagery of crime scenes or traffic collisions, gather intelligence for warrants and provide over watch support for high risk ground operations.

West Midlands Police Force

West Midlands Police have funded their drones with money received from the Proceeds of Crime Act.  This fund, although barred from providing funding for more police officers, has enabled them to build a fleet of state of the art drones and train 15 pilots. As well as providing a mobile camera in the sky allowing them to scan large areas far more quickly than on foot, they’ve also found them to be a useful asset when it comes to providing live feeds from major incidents, football games, protests or other large gatherings.

Online Drone Activity Reporting

Of course, even the Police Force is not immune from a certain amount of public mistrust of this new drone technology. A view of any force’s UAV information page will offer answers to questions about whether drones are being used to spy on people. Most forces, to combat this fear, offer a dedicated information site (either on Twitter or on their website) which offers concerned members of the public access to view exactly what drones are being used for.

These pages make for interesting reading.  The website for Kent Police states that their drones were deployed seven times in June 2019 – three times for photographing a crime scene, twice to conduct an area search for a suspect and twice more for routing planning purposes.  With the drone industry still in its infancy, these usage benefits are sure to increase over time.

Vision Zero and the Met Police

The Metropolitan Police have recently reported that they will now be using a drone to assist them in a crackdown on dangerous drivers in the month of July.  In a move welcomed by Brake, the safety charity, they confirmed that the drone won’t simply be used to catch people breaking the speed limit.  Instead, it will target road users engaging in dangerous activities such as racing. This exercise is part of London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s Vision Zero programme – a week of action aimed at eliminating London road deaths by 2041.

Different Laws for Emergency Services

The Air Navigation Order 2016 applies to all drone use in the UK.  However, General Exemption E4506 exempts some areas when drones are deployed by the emergency services.

The exemptions only apply in short term reactive situations aimed at preventing the immediate risk to human life or during a major incident.  This means that where drones are used for routine or planning purposes, even the Emergency Services are required to abide by standard UAV regulations.

The exemptions apply in two areas

  1. Article 94 (3) which stipulates that a drone pilot must operate with Visual Line of Sight
  2. Article 95 which prevents flights in congested areas or near open air assemblies and proximity to persons, vessels, vehicles and structures.

There are still restrictions placed upon the operator to be qualified and certain limited may not exceeded but these exemptions do mean that UAVs can be deployed outside of standard distance restrictions and line of sight rules to offer real benefit to emergency services personnel.  Likened in the exemption to police, fire and ambulances being allowed to proceed through red traffic lights during an emergency, the exemptions allow more flexible but still considered and controlled UAV use.

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About the Author: DSR Journalist

Harrison Green