Police Drones – The Eye in the Sky

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Police drones are now a common sight in our urban areas as each police authority adopts drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), as an additional tool in their law enforcement efforts.

Drones offer several advantages over traditional police methods, including a bird’s eye view of potential crimes in progress and the ability to quickly and safely apprehend suspects. However, there are also some potential drawbacks to using drones, such as the possibility of violating suspects’ privacy rights. As the use of drones in law enforcement continues to evolve, it will be important to strike a balance between these competing interests.

Early Adoption by Police Forces

The first police drone program in the UK was launched in 2017 by the Devon Cornwall Police after testing that had started in 2015. Since then, the use of drones has gradually spread to other parts UK police forces.

In 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, there were at least 506 active police drone programs in the United States. This represents a significant increase from just two years prior, when there were only 26 active programs. The increased use of drones by police departments is likely due to the many advantages they offer.

Advantages for Police Operations

Drones enable officers to acquire a unique perspective on potential crimes in progress. Traditional police methods, such as patrols in squad cars or on foot, can often miss crimes that are taking place out of plain sight.

Drones can help fill this gap by giving police officers a bird’s eye view of an area. In addition, drones can be equipped with high-definition cameras and other sensors that can record video and audio evidence of criminal activity.

Another advantage of drones is that they can help to quickly and safely apprehend suspects. Police officers can use drones to track the movements of suspects who are fleeing from justice in the same way that helicopters do but at a fraction of the cost, with quicker deployment, and in greater numbers.

In some cases, drones equipped with stun guns or other non-lethal weapons could even be used to apprehend suspects without putting officers’ lives at risk. However, the use of such force would require careful calibration to avoid causing serious injuries.

Police Drones - The Eye in the Sky
Photo by Phil Hearing on Unsplash

Disadvantages of Police Drones

Despite their many advantages, there are also some potential drawbacks to using drones in law enforcement.

One concern is that the use of drones may violate suspects’ privacy rights. In the USA for example, if a drone equipped with a camera is used to conduct surveillance on a suspect’s home, this could be considered a search under the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution.

Another concern is that drone technology may be used improperly or abused by rogue police officers, or simply that the data protection of the general public is compromised by the overuse and storing of data.

As the use of drones in law enforcement continues to evolve, it will be important to address these concerns in order to ensure that the rights of suspects are protected while still allowing police departments to take advantage of this valuable tool.

Aerial Surveillance, IP Cameras, and CCTV

No longer the stuff of science fiction, 24-hour CCTV surveillance has become widespread, commonplace, and, in large measure, accepted. The police fly drones routinely. There is a small chance of escaping being caught on camera, except in remote rural areas. Britain has become one of the most observed/monitored nations on earth. 

The success of the early cameras on major roads and busy junctions led to their deployment in anti-social hotspots, shops and public buildings. The private sector routinely employs cameras for security within and without their premises.

Miniature cameras are now hidden in the most unexpected places, sometimes also by people with malicious intent, making the deployment of such cameras a crime in itself.

The transfer of both that technology and that watching principle to mobile cameras in the air was a logical next step, with applications in agricultural (crop spraying) environments on the one hand and dealing with explosive devices in war zones on the other. 

In the USA, the Mesa County Sheriff’s office in Colorado claims to be the first to have employed unmanned aerial vehicles for a range of purposes from traffic management to assisting full-scale SWAT exercises.  A police officer can use a single drone to capture good quality evidence of road traffic collisions and crime scenes of any type, all by using a single unmanned aerial vehicle.

There are now international associations to advance the unmanned systems industry; which shows how far electronic surveillance has come in little more than a decade. 

Police use of Drones, UAVs & UAS

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) all depend on GPS, neural network technologies, and the cost-efficient manufacture of autonomous vehicles capable of speed, versatile movement and silent travel. 

The BBC reported in December 2011, that the US Army was developing helicopter-style drones carrying 1.8 gigapixel colour cameras. It was the ability to capture small details from above, sometimes unseen, that appealed to law enforcement agencies as well as the military.

Drone cameras allow tracking and monitoring of individuals, groups, and vehicles on a scale not possible before. Linked to intelligence databases and facial recognition systems, military, security, and police versions of these unmanned aircraft systems have become essential weapons in their arsenal in the endless war against crime and terrorism. 

However, for police forces and other emergency services, a drone team or outsourced drone pilots can assist in finding a missing person or missing people as well as preventing crime by use of smart tracking.

Cost & Deployment

Pilotless drones can vertically take off, hover or give chase providing continuous, real-time video evidence streams to support police activity over wide ground areas. Far cheaper to buy and operate than conventional police helicopters, these miniature robots are fast becoming a familiar sight in urban areas.

As early as 2011, the police in Arlington, Texas put into service a pair of battery-powered 11-pound, 4-feet helicopter drones, for $200,000 to record video and take photos.

Other forces soon caught up and so have border agencies, rescue centres, news media organisations, and utility companies anybody wanting fast, accurate, birds-eye view information from situations or disasters that are too hostile or impracticable to reach quickly. 

Armed forces are continuing to develop the large military systems designed for specific operational tasks. They are keen to improve night vision, and to give expand the payload of their unmanned aircraft, with more equipment and wider windows of unimpeded 360-degree vision, compatible with the need to fly fast and light, day and night.

Delivery & Privacy

Drones have become capable of picking up and delivering small payloads, such as medical supplies or defensive weapons. Payloads will inevitably increase in size. The privacy issue is still live. People worry that unfettered police drones will become ubiquitous and ever-more invasive.

As they multiply, concerns about public safety in urban areas, and collision avoidance, particularly with another technology that is in development, Urban Air Mobility (UAM), are generating debate and research.

However, those concerns seem unlikely to slow technological advances, and enthusiasm among the beneficiaries of the systems, including the police, remains high and will carry a lot of weight with lawmakers. Some sort of air traffic control system may become necessary, but drones used in policing are here to stay.

Their ability to provide good quality evidence in a way that would previously have been difficult, expensive, and sometimes impossible, means that lawn enforcement drone pilots are now a standard part of police work.

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