With delivery drones set to fill our skies in the near future, dropping everything from donuts to pizzas, it's no surprise that these cheap little flyers are being embraced by local law enforcement. Three police forces – Devon, Cornwall and Dorset – have teamed up to create the UK's first dedicated drone unit that will provide 24/7 support to operational policing across the three counties.
Law enforcement agencies around the world have been slowly incorporating drones into their day-to-day activities for some time. In the US the use of drones by government agencies has frequently been the source of vocal public concern. Back in 2013 a proposal from the Seattle Police to use drones as part of its law enforcement activities was knocked back after a public outcry. The next year a similar outcry halted a drone plan by the Los Angeles Police Department.
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But despite privacy concerns voiced by citizens, use of drones by law enforcement has skyrocketed. By the end of 2016 there were 347 government departments in the US working with drones, the majority of which were sheriff's offices or police departments.
Over in the UK the drone issue has been less publicly contentious. A regulation passed in 2010 required all unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to be licensed by the Civil Aviation Authority, including any UAVs utilized by the police.
The launch of this drone police unit marks the first fully organized and operational police department in the UK devoted to the deployment of drones. The three respective police departments have been trialing the technology since 2015 and are launching the unit with six drones. Five officers are currently accredited to operate the drones, but the aim is to train a further 40 officers over the next 12 months.
"Drones will aid officers as part of missing person searches; crime scene photography; responding to major road traffic collisions; coastal and woodland searches and to combat wildlife crime," says Chief Superintendent Jim Nye, Commander for the Alliance Operations Department.
The unit is initially using DJI Inspire drones, equipped with thermal imaging and a 4K camera. DJI seem to be locking down the law enforcement market, with the majority of US government departments also using either the DJI Inspire or the DJI Phantom.
The police drone trend is set to gather speed with several other UK police drone projects already in development. Think tank Reform suggested in early 2017 that police drone pilots could replace standard foot patrols, dramatically reducing the amount of police necessary to work the streets.
It's not all Orwellian dystopia, though. These police drone deployments can also drastically improve the an agency's ability to save lives. A man's life was saved in 2013 after his car rolled over and he wandered from the accident site. Both helicopter and ground emergency teams were unable to locate the missing man, but when a drone with a thermal imaging camera was deployed it picked up his heat signature and quickly tracked him down.
Between delivery drones and government drones we are set for a future where our sky will be buzzing with UAVs. The FAA even estimates as many as 30,000 drones will be flying around the US by 2020. So pretty soon that object in the sky above you may not be a bird, or a plane, or even Superman, but just a police drone on patrol.
Take a look at the new UK Drone Unit in the video below.
Source: Devon and Cornwall Police