Given that drones were developed in part for military purposes it was a short step to spot the advantages of drones for policing and SAR (Search and Rescue). No longer the stuff of science fiction, 24-hour CCTV surveillance has become widespread, commonplace and, in large measure, accepted. There is a small chance of escaping being caught on camera, except in remote rural areas. Britain has become one of the most observed/monitored nations on earth.

The success of the early cameras on major roads and busy junctions led to their deployment in anti-social hotspots, shops and public buildings. The private sector routinely employs cameras for security within and without their premises. Miniature cameras are now hidden in the most unexpected places. The transfer of both that technology and that watching principle to mobile cameras in the air was a logical next step, with applications in agricultural (crop spraying) environments on the one hand and dealing with explosive devices in war zones on the other.

Drones For Policing: The First?

The Mesa County Sheriff’s office in Colorado claims to be the first to have employed unmanned aerial vehicles for a range of purposes from traffic management to assisting full scale SWAT exercises.  There is now an international association to advance ‘the unmanned systems community’; which shows how far electronic surveillance has come in little more than a decade.

These remotely controlled airborne systems go under many names, including drones, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), but all depend on GPS, neural network technologies and the cost-efficient manufacture of autonomous vehicles capable of speed, versatile movement and silent travel.

Drones For Policing & Emergency Services

The BBC reported in March 2012, that the US Army was developing helicopter-style drones carrying 1.8 gigapixel colour cameras. It was the ability to capture small details from above, sometimes unseen, that appealed to law enforcement agencies as well as military. Drone cameras allow tracking and monitoring of individuals, groups and vehicles on a scale not possible before. Linked to intelligence data bases and facial recognition systems, police versions of these unmanned helicopters are becoming essential weapons in their arsenal in the endless war against crime and terrorism. 

Pilotless drones can vertically take-off, hover or give chase providing continuous, real-time video evidence streams to support police activity over wide ground areas. Far cheaper to buy and operate than conventional police choppers, these miniature robots are set to become part of the urban skylines of the future.

Police in Arlington, Texas put into service (Nov 2011) a pair of battery-powered 11-pound, 4-feet helicopter drones, at a cost of $200,000 to record video and take photos. Other forces are catching up and so are border agencies, rescue centres, news media organisations, utility companies – in fact, anybody wanting fast, accurate, birds-eye view information from situations or disasters that are too hostile or impracticable to reach quickly.

Armed forces are continuing to develop the technology to improve particularly night vision and to give the drones ever more equipment and wider windows of unimpeded 360 degree vision, compatible with the need to fly fast and light.  Drones will become capable of picking up and delivering small payloads, such as medical supplies or defensive weapons. They will inevitably increase in size.

The privacy issue is still live. People worry that unfettered police drones will become ubiquitous and ever-more invasive. As they multiply, potential collisions with other airborne craft, especially near airports, become likely and if any fail and drop from the sky, damage to people and property would be extensive.

However, those concerns seem unlikely to slow technological advances, and enthusiasm among the beneficiaries of the systems, including the police, remains high and will carry a lot of weight with lawmakers. Some sort of air traffic control system may become necessary, but they are here to stay.

Drones For Emergency Services

Once upon a time, drones were the exclusive preserve of covert military developers, where, if mentioned at all, they were usually referred to as Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). Much later, low-fi versions began to appear on the hobby/enthusiast market, at first tending to excite great interest and public annoyance in equal measure.

Fast-forward to the present and we find that the latest generation of these mini unmanned aircraft systems offer major benefits, such as speed, easy access, and economy, which already make them go-to tools in many specialist industries. And now the UK’s emergency services are becoming aware of the inherent potential of UAS deployment, it seems these fixed-wing and multi-rotor machines may soon play a significant role in future emergency management – one major incentive being that saving time generally saves lives too.

Enhanced emergency intelligence and response 

For police services, UAS surveillance and reconnaissance is perhaps a natural development of the role already undertaken by police helicopters. So rather than summoning remote aerial assistance, police teams may soon be able to launch and control their own local UAS support for intelligence applications related to crowd control, siege management, monitoring fleeing vehicles, and similar. 

Likewise, fire services would surely wish to take advantage of UAS aerial monitoring of larger-scale fires to locate the heart of the blaze, check for survivors or victims, remain in line-of-sight contact with fire-rescue teams, and quickly survey fire damage once a fire has been tackled. In the event of persistent hazardous conditions such as prevail in the aftermath of a gas explosion, or the collapse of a large building, aerial cameras and/or thermal imaging would be a quick and safe means of finding victims without risking further lives, and also establishing the nature and extent of the emergency – and thus the level of response required. 

With emergencies involving remote or inhospitable terrain, UAS support would be invaluable for services such as our coastguards or mountain search-and-rescue teams. Again technologies such as remote cameras and thermal imaging would help to rapidly search and pinpoint the location of victims in cliff rescues, those trapped by incoming tides, or rescues at sea where victims may be unconscious or in the water. Similarly, large areas of moorland and other potentially threatening landscapes could be efficiently searched at speed to find outdoor adventurers lost or stranded and in need of assistance. 

Ambulance services and other medical-response teams would benefit from UAS capabilities when faced with major disasters where victims are not easily visible, in terrain where access is restricted, or when dealing with air crashes and similar incidents where the victims may well be spread across a wide area.

Global initiatives 

Emergency services worldwide have also begun to commission or deploy a range of UAS support as outlined below:

– Canadian Police successfully located and rescued an unconscious driver using an infrared camera mounted on a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle);

– Both Germany and Holland have so-called ‘ambulance drones’ capable of rapidly deploying a life-saving defibrillator for those suffering heart attacks in wilderness locations;

– A US-developed UAV is equipped to deliver urgent medical supplies in third-world countries, whilst another UAV development, known as ‘InstantEye’, can ferry a mobile phone to trapped victims thus enabling them to communicate with rescuers.

Future disaster management 

UAS capability continues to expand at a rapid pace, and new sensory equipment can now assess levels of chemical contamination, recognise the sound of gunfire, and even detect and measure radiation hazards. UAVs of the future will also become powerful disaster-management tools used, for example, to overfly and map disaster zones to inform decisions about which locations are most in need of support, and also to configure the best routes through the zone which emergency-response vehicles should follow to avoid major obstructions.