Published:6:00 AM February 7, 2022
Updated: 8:47 AM February 7, 2022
Long range drones allowing police to monitor and film suspected criminal activity up to 20 miles away are to be piloted in Norfolk.
Eye in the sky drones were used 1,500 times in Norfolk last year for everything from spotting cannabis farms to finding missing people.
They are seen as an increasingly valuable tool for police and cheaper alternatives to helicopters.
Police drones were used to catch burglars, fly over firearms incidents and to monitor illegal camps and unlicensed music gatherings.– Credit: Archant
But at the moment, under civil aviation authority rules, their use is limited as drone operators must be able to see the machine they are controlling.
Norfolk is now one of four constabularies, alongside the Met, West Midlands and Thames Valley Police, chosen to be involved in national research aimed at expanding the range they can be remotely flown.
It could enable operators to pilot drones up to 30km away – potentially meaning devices flying over Norwich could be controlled from police headquarters in Wymondham or another remote base station.
Drones have proved a valuable tool in the search for missing people.– Credit: Archant
National Police Air Service (NPAS), which currently provides air support to 46 forces, is leading the Home Office funded research to “better understand the capabilities that Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLoS) drones may provide to police aviation in the future”.
In a statement it said: “The project will not only consider drone types, but also command and control and hazard detection systems, to ensure compliance with Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) regulatory policies and procedures.
“Other important considerations will include the potential value for money and environmental gains of drone use, plus a reduction in noise compared to traditional aircraft.”
Norfolk’s newly-elected Police and Crome Commissioner, Gile Orpen-Smellie is officially sworn into the role.Byline: Sonya Duncan– Credit: Sonya Duncan
Norfolk set for lift-off
Norfolk police and crime commissioner (PCC) Giles Orpen-Smellie has previously said he is keen to see aviation rules changed so police could use drones more widely, and that ideally he would spend funding the force currently pays for the use of the NPAS helicopter on drones.
He said: “The key change in our drone capability would be a beyond line of sight flying permission.
“The drones have the reach, they have the endurance. There are drones on the market now you can put up for eight hours.”
Long range drones could prove to be a cheaper more environmentally friendly alternative to police helicopter flights.– Credit: Archant
Norfolk police currently has 22 fully trained drone operators and 20 drones, although eight of those are only used for training.
Their success has already seen Norfolk expand its fleet to include a device capable of flying indoors and a fixed wing drone.
Speaking at the PCC public accountability meeting this month, assistant chief constable Nick Davison said: “Drones are proving to be excellent in terms of seeing what is going on in really large expanses of rural areas in Norfolk where there is limited population and drones are one of the best ways to get ourselves out and be visible.”
Assistant chief constable Nick Davison. – Credit: Norfolk Constabulary
He said the pilot will see significant funding with the constabulary “testing with the CAA partners and others how the police service as a whole might be able to continue to expand the use of drones beyond what the currently legal parameters are”.
Big brother in the sky?
The prospect of longer-range remotely operated drones mounted with cameras has raised concerns among civil liberties campaigners.
The NPAS recently asked companies to submit details of systems capable of transmitting hi-res live images enabling officers to pick out details such as “facial features” and vehicle registration plates from up to 1,500ft away.
Civil liberties groups have expressed concerns over long range police drones fitted with cameras.– Credit: Archant
The campaign group Big Brother Watch expressed concerns that such technology could be misused to target people taking part in legitimate activity, such as demonstrations.
“Without clear policies in place, we’re concerned that this extreme, militaristic form of surveillance could be used in ways that breach rights and harm democracy, such as spying on peaceful protests,” said the group’s director, Silkie Carlo.
The NPAS said the research would take in predominantly area searches for missing and vulnerable people, suspects, vehicles and property.
“This is a complex and detailed piece of research work involving significant regulatory implications, and is still in its very early exploratory stages,” it added.
A member of the Norfolk Police drone team pilots the thermal camera over Norwich.– Credit: Neil Perry/Archant
Crime-fighting to missing people
Drones have already proved a valuable tool for Norfolk police.
In its annual activity report spanning 2020-2021, the constabulary said it had flown its drones in police work or in support of fire services 1,484 times, compared to 657 during the first full year of operating the craft.
It included 329 pre-planned flights, and 1,226 in response to reports of ongoing crimes like burglary, car theft, firearm offences, or staging of unauthorised music events.
Missions also included monitoring Covid restrictions to tracing to searches for missing and vulnerable people.
Police deploy a drone to pursue suspects after reports of hare coursing near Diss. – Credit: South Norfolk Police
One incident highlighted was an elderly man with Parkinson’s disease, classed as high risk, who had gone missing.
A drone operator guided officers on the ground to where he was found tangled in barbed wire and falling in and out of consciousness.