Police forces across the globe have been experimenting with drones for years, treading an uneasy balance between making the best of a useful technology and terrifying a privacy-protecting public tired of state intrusions.
There have been carefully deployed trials in the past, like the Surrey and Sussex police force’s three-month-long testing of drones in collaboration with Gatwick Airport’s armed response unit, but the latest is a more permanent introduction.
Revealed: how UK police are taught to deal with drones
Police across Devon and Cornwall are set to introduce a 24-hour drone unit and the force is currently advertising for a ‘drone manager’. The drones will largely be used for surveillance of crime scenes and to help in the search for missing people, and it will be the first 24-hour drone unit in the UK, operating out of nine police stations.
Aside from fears of privacy intrusions, there is a growing concern automated and potentially unaccountable technology is replacing human judgement as budget cuts grow. Earlier this month, a report on the effectiveness in policing by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) found a series of “dangerous” practices were ongoing: from officers downgrading emergency calls to allow for a longer response time, to officers with the wrong qualifications being sent to conduct investigations.
The fear is often that technology will either justify a future lack of investment, or lead to more cuts. However, when looking at the Devon and Cornwall police force, the move into drones makes sense with or without cuts, and could be considered a perfect example of when technology is the answer to a problem.
Devon and Cornwall Police covers more ground than any other police force in England, an area spanning 180 miles. “To give some impression of the scale of the area, police headquarters in Exeter is actually nearer to London than the furthest extremity of the Force,” the force explains.
The coastal terrain can be hazardous for police to cover during missing persons cases, so it makes sense for drones to be deployed here. It’s also not the first time the force has experimented with the technology. Since 2015, drone trials have been used in missing persons cases, helped track down an escaped lynx from Dartmoor Zoo, and monitored road accidents.
“If delivering the best service within the budget means using drones for something, a cop is now free to go to that burglary. It’s about freeing resources,” assistant chief constable Steve Barry, national spokesman on drones, told the Daily Mail.
The presence of police surveillance drones is only likely to increase. A Sky News report in 2016 revealed that two thirds of fire services and half of all police forces in the UK were either using drones or planning to. There is acode of conduct around deployment of drones, however, which involves talking to the local community about how and why they are being used.