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UK Police Drones Expand Coverage

Gwent Police have become the latest police force to add drones to their arsenal. Unmanned aerial vehicles are currently used by numerous police forces across the UK. Eyes in the sky have an obvious appeal to law enforcement who previously relied upon expensive helicopters. At a fraction of the cost, even a consumer drone allows police to get real-time birds eye intelligence.

Gwent Police were granted permission from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to use unmanned aerial vehicles at live police incidents. Examples of a live police incident include searching for missing people, large scale events, anti-social behaviour and rural crime. South Wales Police say they’ve used drones since July 2016, noting the successes in identifying anti-social behaviour from off-road bikers.

Police Drones: a short history

Merseyside Police were experimenting with drones back in 2007, in 2010 the force reportedly caught a car thief using one. One week after this Merseyside Police were stopped from using it as the drone was not licensed. Licensing was then granted by the CAA, the drone was crashed into the River Mersey and police stated they wouldn’t be replacing it due to operational limitations and cost of training.

A trial held in March 2014 by Surrey and Sussex Police used an Aeryon Skyranger drone at Gatwick Airport. Equipment cost £35,000 and training for four officers cost £10,000. Six months later drones were obtained or operated by at least five English police forces, including soggy Merseyside. In 2016 over 25% of the 43 territorial police forces in England and Wales began making plans to use drones for surveillance, this came after a successful pilot program which convinced senior police drones were an alternative to existing technology, even basic foot patrols.

The Surrey and Sussex Police drone project was funded by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). ACPO was a non-profit, non-governmental entity established in 1948 from similar local and regional bodies dating back to the 1900s. The entity was dissolved in 2015 due to a combination of funding cuts and public insight into its activities not limited to the following:

  • Setting up a Criminal Records Office in 2006 in response to a gap in the police service’s ability to manage criminal records and biometric data
  • Selling access to the Police National Computer for £70, 85 times the cost of accessing it themselves
  • Marketing ‘police approval’ logos to firms selling anti-theft devices
  • Spending £1.6 million from government anti-terror funding grants on 80 apartments in central London; mostly they were left empty
  • Promoting undercover operations still being uncovered and resolved
  • Providing police certificates for obtaining visas in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States
Police drone
This is what most police drone work looks like, the officers reportedly struggled to get the thing down.

A 2013 independent review of ACPO carried out by General Sir Nick Parker recommended replacing ACPO with a new body in the interest of transparency and cost effectiveness. The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) was established on April 1 2015. Ironically the NPCC is not a legal entity, somewhat protecting its actions from legal action and Freedom of Information requests as it was during its time as an incorporated limited company; the ACPO years.

Using drones, i.e. the latest technology, as a means of reducing crime is a temptation for the security possessed security circles. ACPO codified into existence shortly after the Second World War in 1948, this year also saw treaties signed which expanded the UK-USA Special Relationship to other Anglophone countries. Clearly alliances in the 20th century have not been rapidly disrupted, an expansion of the global middle is a merging of liberal interdependence and realist self-interest. There is a level of power that by nature of its position in the structure has to perceive things as less human and more quantifiable.

Borough commander of Camden and Islington, Detective Chief Superintendent Catherine Roper is keen to trial drones. At a town hall meeting in January 2017 Roper said drone strategy was run by central units at the London Metropolitan Police Force and governed by “absolutely ridiculous” CAA rules. Admitting the huge issues around privacy and human rights Roper did not commit to any action but wanted to explore further possibilities.

Pursuit of the technological innovation in police forces, pushed by murky groups of influencers crops up in the rather quaint hilarity of a police force ditching a drone worth thousands of pounds into a cold Liverpuddlian river. Incompetence is a human trait. A large number of police forces in the UK do not need drones. Yet the push for automation of services is growing in speed, think tanks are able to sell the idea at any level. A recent paper from think tank Reform suggests automating 90% of Whitehall administrative workers, 90,000 NHS administrative jobs and 24,000 GP reception jobs. Police drone pilots taking over from foot patrols would mark a radical shift in how Britain polices its streets, one that runs counter to many community backed policies. Throwing these ideas into the air is nonetheless useful, we then have to talk about it in the media, or be pushed along regardless. It is a case of taking an interest in something before it takes an interest in you.

Surrey and Sussex’s police drone project was given £250,000 to start up and had in 2016, 38 trained pilots for one drone. The success, however defined, means they are expanding. Assistant Chief Constable Steve Barry has given assurances drone operations will be “overt, open and transparent, and we will use all outlets available to us to ensure the public are informed of our drone use”. Nothing is worth being overt, open and transparent if it isn’t examined.

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Mathew Sayer

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