How UK Police are using drones to catch criminals and locate missing persons

How UK Police are using drones to catch criminals and locate missing persons

Today in the UK, most police forces obtain air support using unmanned aerial systems (UAS), more commonly known as drones, in addition to traditional air support services like helicopters from the National Police Air Service (NPAS).

Drones can provide visual and/or thermal aerial imagery to aid in the real-time surveillance of suspect pursuit, the search for missing person and live events such as football matches, concerts and even protests. They even help to quantify data from major accident sites, disaster zones and crime scenes, so it’s no wonder UK law enforcement are implementing drones into various areas of their operations.

With the UK as a whole being one of the most enthusiastic early-adopters of drone technology, our police forces are fast discovering the ways in which drones can save time, money (NPAS helicopter support costs approximately £1400 p/hour to operate) and often-limited resources.

Devon and Cornwall Police Drone Unit_Kit

Image: Devon & Cornwall Police, Drone Unit Kit

As Police and Crime Commissioner for Wiltshire and Swindon, Angus Macpherson, explains: “This ‘eye in the sky’ technology helps police and other emergency services on the ground to find casualties, enabling life-saving first aid to be given.

“As well as safeguarding vulnerable people, our experienced drone pilots can help to track down offenders seeking to evade arrest.

“I am committed to keeping Wiltshire Police at the forefront of modern technology and leading the way with innovation to maintain Wiltshire as one of the safest places in the country to live.”

Following Macpherson’s comments, let’s take a look at how other police forces in the UK are harnessing drone technology to better their operations.

Sussex and Surrey Police

Featuring over 40 CAA-approved police drone operators and 5 top-of-the-range aircraft funded by the Home Office, Sussex and Surrey Police have one of the largest combined drone units in the UK. Used only for specific operations rather than daily general surveillance, their drone fleet assists with searches for missing people, investigations into road traffic collisions, major crime incidents and Industrial Accident investigations, event planning and management, and provide situational awareness to officers and Commanders in various policing situations.

Recently tasked with investigating a series of ‘drone’ sightings at Gatwick Airport over the Christmas period, it’s vital that Sussex Police has a thorough understanding of drone operations along with ability to take immediate action in response to any future drone disruptions at the airport.

With their long-standing drone unit already tasked with supporting airport security and crash scene investigations, it would seem Sussex and Surrey Police are a good example for realising the protentional of drone technology to enhance public and police safety across a variety of scenarios.

They can also call on the help of Surrey Search and Rescue (SurSAR), a team of volunteer specialists who, amongst other methods, deploy drones for missing persons and rescue operations over large areas of wilderness and without knowing where the casualty is to begin with.

Head of RPAS at SurSAR, Simon Green, said: “Drones offer many benefits that complement the National Police Air Service Helicopter.

“This technology offers a highly cost-effective approach to missing person search and situational awareness during flooding or water rescues.

“Using SARRPAS to capture footage on difficult terrain and hard to reach areas such as rivers and woodland [allows] our team to gain vital information quickly, safely and respond effectively at an incident.”

Surrey Search and Rescue_SURSAR Drone

Image: Twitter @SurreySAR, Surrey Search and Rescue Drone

West Midlands Police

West Midlands Police deploy drones in a bid to tackle crime and support their officers across a variety of tasks including filming crime scenes and providing live aerial feeds from major incidents, football games and protests.

Fitted with the latest high definition cameras and thermal imaging technology, the force has a growing fleet of 3 aircraft and 7 CAA-certified drone pilots to help officers cover more ground on their patrols.

Police in Coventry have found drones majorly aid their officers in tackling violence, seizing class A drugs and making arrests in crime hotspots like Birmingham and Coventry City Centres.

Chief Superintendent Danny Long, from West Midlands Police, said: “We have seen the success of a drone in capturing clear, high definition video to assist the force in policing games. We are always looking to be innovative in the way we work with the aim of keeping our streets safe and catching criminals.”

With an ongoing battle to crackdown on car cruising, which has proven to be a continuous issue across the West Midlands, Police have been using drones to gather evidence. Superintendent Ian Green, from Birmingham Police, said: “There is a huge amount of work going on to tackle this issue as we know many people are concerned about anti-social and dangerous activity.

“Our traffic officers and others carry out regular operations across the force in response to concerns raised by communities. These are also now supported by police drone pilots who gather information on offenders.”

Devon & Cornwall and Dorset Police

As one of the first operational drone police units in the country, Devon & Cornwall and Dorset Police formed an alliance that allows officers to obtain vital information quickly and respond to incidents in a more safe and efficient manner. Since 2014, drones have been deployed to locate and aid rescuers searching for missing persons along the coastline, monitor protesters and provide surveillance at road traffic accidents and crime scenes.

As Martyn Underhill, Dorset Police and Crime Commissioner explained: “I’ve seen first-hand how deploying drones at a road crash can reduce the impact on the public, especially in rural Dorset on the A35. Drones can capture 3D imagery and information from the scene in minutes rather than hours, and roads can be reopened much quicker.

“They are also invaluable in helping with searches for missing people. I am convinced policing can take huge steps forward with this approach. Deploying a drone costs a fraction of the cost of a helicopter and they can also be used when a helicopter is unavailable.”

They even provide a drone safety course dubbed ‘Safer Skies with Safer Drones’, where members of the public receive 3 hours of classroom-based tutorage from serving police officers to increase their drone awareness, safety knowledge and understanding of UK drone legislation. Aimed at recreational drone pilots operating within their catchment area, attendees are given the opportunity to interact with experienced police drone pilots and build strong networks with their local peers.

Devon and Cornwall Police Drone Unit_Safer Skies with Safer Drones Course

Image: Devon and Cornwall Police, Safer Drones Public Awareness Course

Best Drones for the Job

From DJI to Yuneec to Aeryon, Police forces are integrating UAS into their catalogues of operational vehicles and equipment. With so many manufacturers and models on the market, it can be difficult to distinguish the best drones for all types of police work. So we’ve put together our top 3 drones for police operations, as of February 2019:

DJI Phantom 4 Pro V2.0

The DJI Phantom 4 Pro V2.0 is a reliable platform featuring a camera equipped with a 1-inch 20-megapixel sensor capable of shooting 4K/60fps video and Burst Mode stills at 14 fps.

With 5-direction obstacle sensing and a 30-minute maximum flight time, this aircraft has everything a police force needs to capture high-quality visual imagery from above.

Priced at £1,589 the Phantom 4 Pro V2.0 won’t break the budget, although it’s probably worth waiting out for the highly anticipated DJI Phantom 5 that’s just around the corner…

View the DJI Phantom 4 Series

DJI Matrice 200 Series

With a choice between the M200, M210 or M210 RTK, DJI’s Matrice 200 series provides you with a reliable platform built for endurance across various police activities.

These high-spec platforms can be customised for purpose, with the M210 and M210 RTK featuring dual payload capabilities so you can combine the best visual and thermal cameras on the market as well as third-party payload solutions like ultra-bright spotlights – perfect for night surveillance and low-light search and rescue operations.

With prices starting just north of £4,000 for the aircraft alone, these top of the line industrial platforms require a larger budget if you want to kit yourself out with the latest payload solutions to boot. But for complex police operations, having a trusted platform that can perform in even the most challenging environments is worth spending a little bit more.

View the DJI Matrice 200 Series

Greater Manchester Police_DJI Matrice 200

Image: Greater Manchester Police, DJI Matrice 200 Series with Zenmuse Z30

DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual

The latest edition to DJI’s Mavic Series is the Mavic 2 Enterprise. It comes in both a Universal and Dual edition, with the latter featuring a three-axis gimbal stabilised camera housing a side-by-side 4K sensor for capturing visible light and a FLIR Lepton® thermal microcamera for capturing thermal data.

Both aircraft come with a built-in extended port allowing DJI’s modular accessories to be attached;

M2E Spotlight – A dual spotlight intended to aid users performing missions in low-light areas with greater ease and mobility.

M2E Speaker – A loudspeaker with a projection of 100dB, which can be used for real-time voice transmission, and allows for the storage of voice recordings which can be played for future use.

M2E Beacon – A strobe light intended to enhance safety when conducting missions in low light areas, allowing other pilots to easily spot the aircraft from a distance.

With a maximum flight time of 31 minutes, 24 GB of onboard storage, GPS timestamping and self-heating batteries, the DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual is priced at £2,669 and provides a portable and reliable aerial solution for police forces.

View the DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise Series

DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise_Police
Image: DJI, Mavic 2 Enterprise

Looking Forward

Although police across the country are making use of internal drone units, they are currently in place to assist rather than replace traditional air support such as helicopters. As Assistant Chief Constable Steve Barry, head of Surrey and Sussex Police Operations, emphasised that drones are “not a replacement for the NPAS police helicopter; they are complementary to it.”

As it stands, drone technology provides additional measures for fighting crime in the UK but there is still a requirement for police helicopter surveillance and other methods of air support. As the saying goes, it’s the more the merrier in terms of variety, whilst still being able to minimise wastage of the Police’s precious resources.

Not only are police using their own drones to tackle crime but the government has recently put in place legislation that will give police additional powers to land, seize and search drones suspected of contributing to illegal activity.

As Aviation Minister, Liz Sugg explained: “Drones have the potential to bring significant benefits and opportunities, but with the speed of technological advancement comes risk, and safety and security must be our top priorities… That’s why we are giving the police powers to deal with those using drones irresponsibly. Along with additional safety measures these will help ensure the potential of this technology is harnessed in a responsible and safe way.”

It’s fair to predict that we will see even more forces across the country harnessing drone technology and integrating UAS into their operations over the coming years, thus leading to a safer UK for the public and police alike.


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