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Police Using Drones: The Reality Is Here

Last updated on

February 5, 2016


    Police using drones: sounds like science fiction, right? Wrong. Forces in Bedfordshire, Cumbria, Devon and Cornwall, Dorset, Warwickshire, and West Mercia have all trialled the use of drones like the DJI Inspire 1 and the 3DR Solo.

    Devon and Cornwall Police in Plymouth have a drone ready for action within 24 hours of the start of a missing person operation. They have also used their UAV to take aerial photos of a serious road accident to assess the situation and aid other emergency services.

    Police forces are increasingly interested in the use of drones as part of their service, as a way to reduce costs, improve accident survey potential, assess dangerous situations, and save time in emergencies. Drones can also aid forces by entering situations initially considered dangerous for people on the ground, such as hostage or firearms circumstances.

    Do police need special permissions to fly drones?

    You might think that your police force needs special permission to fly in UK airspace. Actually, because it saves time and money using a UAV for police work is classed as ‘commercial gain’ so permission is not required. Instead, many emergency service forces including police and firefighters across the UK have been trained by NQE training providers to achieve the required qualifications needed for a PfAW from the CAA.

    The one caveat to permissions and a current difficulty for police forces using drones is that they can only be used in daylight. However, forces remain optimistic that night ration permissions will soon be granted.

    Why do the police use drones?

    The significant cost savings of using drones outweigh any initial outlay: for helicopter services, significant fuel cost savings are immediately obvious. Other uses include viewing the live feed of a drone-mounted HD camera to assess and document difficult terrain or dangerous situations, making them cost-effective as they save time and reduce staff risk.

    Drones are also useful in highly populated scenarios where it wouldn’t be possible to deploy a helicopter and is hard for people on the ground to accurately assess a situation. For example, the London Riots a few years ago may have been able to be managed more successfully if drones had been deployed to assess crowd situations in real-time.

    What drones are police forces using?

    The National Police Air Service Helicopter and fixed-wing planes squadron already save £15m every year by having a centralised service. Using UAVs such as the DJI Inspire 1 will complement their service and save even more money. Using drones to pre-assess a situation before sending a helicopter is the most obvious use. A drone can also be used solely for tasks such as missing persons and suspects searches at a far lower cost than dispatching the police helicopter.

    Other forces use the DJI Inspire 1 due to its two-man set-up option. This means one operates the drone flight path while another controls the 4K resolution camera around its 360-degree rotation without affecting drone flight (unlike the smaller Phantom 3).

    Larger, more expensive, drones have been trialled by police forces in the past, but the consensus has been that they appear less stable and require more pilot training to avoid costly crashes. (One police force retired a £15,000 drone after crashing it into a river as it was too expensive to repair! That’s where drone insurance comes in handy…).

    Compare the cost of this crashed drone to the DJI Inspire 1 Dual Controller, which retails at £2,700 – they could have had five drones in action for the price of just the one large one! This means more coverage in either a large-scale operation, or for multiple operations at the same time – improving police safety and speeding up response times.


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