Police forces turn to drones after helicopters take too long to turn up

Delays in National Police Air Service (NPAS) helicopters being despatched have become so severe that most constabularies have invested in purchasing drones as a potential alternative, it has been revealed.

Unmanned aircraft with video capabilities, operated remotely from a control room, might be used in place of manned choppers by police, it has been suggested.

They could be sent to trail suspects or search for missing persons in some limited circumstances. Alternatively, they could be deployed merely to complement more traditional types of police technology, the Inspectorate of Constabulary for England and Wales has said.

A report on the subject, published by the watchdog, has been seized upon by critics of funding cuts and campaigners pushing for a change to what they regard as an unfair formula used to calculate the amount each police force must pay into the NPAS budget. Others warned that drones could never be a match for having human eyes in the sky.

Graham Wettone, the author of How To Be A Police Officer, who served for over 30 years in UK policing, told E&T drones could be of “wonderful benefit” to law enforcement but said they should be used in conjunction with existing forms of air support.

“Sometimes you have to be aware of what’s behind you and what’s in front of you,” he said. The drone is a great support, but it can never completely replace having people in a helicopter. It can never see everything.”

Drones would be of limited use in car chases, because they cannot currently fly fast enough. However, they tend to be far quieter than helicopters, meaning they could be better placed to aid police during covert operations. They would also be less likely to give rise to noise complaints from members of the public.

The police inspectorate, which ranks forces in England and Wales based on their performance, raised concern over a lack of analysis as to how cost-effective drones are compared with helicopters or fixed-wing police aircraft.  

Matt Parr, who led the inspection said one force estimated that its need for NPAS support might have dropped by as much as half now that it had drones as part of its fleet, however.

Police helicopters typically use thermal imaging to hunt for criminals on the run. Around two-thirds of the 43 different police forces in England and Wales own or have access to the services of drones, but the inspectorate highlighted concerns over a piecemeal approach to procurement and deployment of the UAVs.

The amount spent on the technology varies hugely between forces, with Surrey Police and Sussex Police jointly spending £300,000 on five drones while Durham Constabulary bought one for just £1,450. London’s Metropolitan Police, which also has overall responsibility for counter-terrorism nationwide, owns 12 drones.

In the case of Sussex Police, purchase and set-up costs were found to have far outweighed the benefits gained through operational use.

The inspectorate’s report stated: “When we visited forces, officers told us that drones had generally been purchased with a view to establishing their capabilities and cost-effectiveness as an alternative to calling for NPAS support.”

It also warned: “There is some evidence to suggest that police officers are making less use of [NPAS] air support because it takes too long to arrive.”

More than 40 per cent of call-outs last year were cancelled because the incident was over before air support had arrived, according to an independent probe.

In many areas it took more than half an hour for a helicopter to reach the scene.

Guidance for police on how and when to use drones and other air services was “patchy at best” and has led to “confusion among frontline officers” about their use, it added.

“While most forces have purchased drones, none has rigorously evaluated their use and, as a result, the police service has not developed a common view on their relative merit as a form of police air support,” the report said.

E&T reported earlier this year on “drone catcher” test flights being held at a UK military base amid concern that terror groups could weaponise easy-to-buy unmanned aerial vehicles and use them to launch air attacks in British cities.

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