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South-West police forces pioneer new drone unit

Published 26 July 2017

Devon & Cornwall and Dorset police become first UK forces to take major step from trialling technology to creating fully operational drone unit


The Devon & Cornwall and Dorset police forces have launched a fully operational drone unit following the trialling of technology since November 2015, becoming the first UK-based law enforcement bodies to do so.

According to the forces, the drones implemented as part of the unit will be used as a cost effective way to aid ground officers while also keeping them safe. 

“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”, said chief superintendent Jim Nye.

“Drones can even help police track and monitor suspects during a firearm or terrorist incident, as it will allow officers to gain vital information, quickly, safely, and allow us to respond effectively at the scene.” This suggests that the drones will also be used during active incidents to convey information to the officers on the ground.

The drones will be deployed instead of National Police Air Service (NPAS) helicopters, which have traditionally been used to capture all aerial footage by the police. Using drones for smaller incidents is a better use of resources, as the helicopters would not need to be deployed on long flights to take a few pictures. This allows the helicopters to be available for more serious incidents, the forces have claimed.

The collaboration between the two police forces will solely focus the use and deployment of drones and not include arrangements for supporting infrastructure, such as data centres or potentially, the cloud, to store the information collected by the drones.

 “I have no doubt we will be looking at this as the technology improves. It is the decision of each of the police forces’ chief constables as to whether they want to trial the use of drones,” added a spokesperson for the unit.

As far as the integration of other police forces in this drone partnership or the development of their own drone units, the spokesperson said: “This is specifically for the Devon & Cornwall and Dorset Police, but we have worked with other forces to show them what we have been doing. As I mentioned it is down to the chief constable of each force to decide if they wish to invest in drone technology.”

At a time when issues of privacy and oversight on how law enforcement and security services are making use of technology, the drones will be piloted in public spaces, and so must comply with the UK Data Protection Act.

When asked about data protection obligations of the unit’s work, a member of the drone unit said, “We are fully compliant with the Information Commissioner’s office codes of practice in relation to drone use and comply with the Data Protection Act.

“Effectively a drone is very similar to CCTV therefore there are no differences in how we retain and store data. We are the first force using drones to be certified as Surveillance Camera Code compliant after we worked closely with the Surveillance Commissioner.  We are not looking at shared infrastructure at this time but I have no doubt we will be looking at this as the technology improves,” said the spokesperson.

(Omar Sesay contributed to this report)

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