Drone Policing

28 April, 2015 by James Lawson

Our TMT Predictions 2015 report suggests the active base of non-military drones will exceed one million units in 2015. Drones could be particularly transformational in policing. In the UK, forces have access to over 20 helicopters through the National Police Air Service. However, this is a costly and finite resource, reserved for critical incidents and operations. Drones are a much cheaper and more flexible alternative. They could be deployed on a day-to-day basis across Britain’s police forces, and are already starting to be trialled at Gatwick and other locations. This blog reviews five key ways drones can support front-line policing, while considering some of the challenges they pose.

Locating suspects and vehicle pursuit

Whether searching for a robbery suspect or pursuing an offender fleeing a crime scene, drones can search large areas quickly. Direct ground resources can then be targeted rapidly and effectively. Drones can be especially useful in large rural areas: many non-urban forces have limited resources making conventional systematic ground search difficult or impossible.

A drone can pursue a vehicle which fails to stop for police. Commentary on the incident and progress of the fugitive can be relayed to traffic officers, enabling them to intercept. The video footage and supporting data could form part of the evidence used in court.

Public order

Drones could be a valuable asset to monitor and control large-scale public order events. UAVs could transmit live footage to the incident room, helping it to make informed decisions on the deployment of officers.  

Improved vantage points would help controllers to spot key developments. These could range from an attendee carrying a weapon, to initial signs of violence or a vulnerable bystander being trampled in the crowd. Facial recognition could be deployed to identify known troublemakers, like members of the local firm at a football derby.

Search and rescue

Searching for people who are missing, or at risk is extremely time-sensitive. Drones are able to cover a large area quickly, assisting units on the ground. Thermal imaging could detect people by their body heat, potentially saving lives. Drones might also be particularly useful when responding to natural disasters, such as floods.

Targeted Patrols and intelligence gathering

Forces are increasingly focusing on crime prevention, to reduce the crime rate and ease pressure on their response/investigation teams. Overt drone patrols could be used to discourage criminal activity and reassure the vulnerable in targeted hotspots – with drones diverted to assist with incidents as needed. Covert patrols (assuming legal approval) could be used to gather intelligence or evidence on organised crime groups, and dangerous suspects.

High risk response

Drones are not new in high-risk scenarios, particularly bomb disposal. Their capabilities continue to advance. Sensors can support the detection of CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) threats. Small and agile reconnaissance drones could provide a tactical edge when undertaking raids and engaging in firearms operations.

Problems from drones

Whilst drones can transform many aspects of policing, their advance comes with risks.

Like all technology implementations, they should be deployed to meet the requirements of the users, not indiscriminately. Implementation will need to be accompanied by appropriate organisational and process change.

Legislation around drones is still evolving, and the police will particularly need to address safety and privacy concerns. Their advance will need to be carefully controlled in line with government policy around the wider use of drones, and in accordance with HMIC/Home Office guidance on police tactics.

Finally, drones might catch on for criminal use too. Forces will need to be ready to respond to inventive drone-enabled crime – like cartels using drones to transport contraband, or terrorist attacks delivered by drones.