The Police Chiefs' Blog
One year on from the start of the first lockdown
Police Chiefs' Blog: Martin Hewitt - Chief Constables Council January 2021
What have we learnt about dealing with mental health during the pandemic?
DCC Julie Cooke discusses the importance of Pride
How we can stop female genital mutilations
Data Protection Day
Police Chiefs' Blog: Martin Hewitt - Chief Constables Council January 2020
International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers
Drones and the police
Next >>>

The only droning I'm very familiar with is the sound of my own voice. As the ACPO lead on air support I am often asked about the potential for introducing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones into policing.

For the purpose of this blog I'm referring to the sort of advanced technology used by the military and others as an aerial alternative to aeroplanes or helicopters. That is materially very different from the kinds of lightweight aerial technology with a camera which are available in every high street gadget shop. These small devices have limited capabilities and can only be used legally in the UK within line of sight.

Last week I was asked about drones in the run up to the launch of National Police Air Service (NPAS) on October 1 2012.

I gave my usual answer, which (for the record) is always as follows:

"The use of UAVs (over 20 kg) is not allowed in the UK under Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) regulations. The introduction of UAVs would not only need to be legal but seen as acceptable by citizens in the UK. This public debate has not happened and initial views are polarised between 'why aren't we doing this now' and 'we must never allow this'. I can see the advantages in terms of cost and capability but I can see the risks of safety and public support. I cannot foresee the introduction of UAVs / drones into UK policing for many years. My focus is on the successful introduction of NPAS to ensure we protect the public, cut crime and catch criminals."

UAVs which are under 20kg and used only within line of sight are allowed with permission of the Civil Aviation Authority. The CAA provides permit based on compliance with conditions that ensure public safety. We are aware of one such UAV currently in use within the police service in the UK, owned by Staffordshire police. It is used in searches for missing persons in hazardous environments or to support planned operations.

Whenever UAVs / drones are mentioned, it tends to result in newspaper headlines and leads to a number of UAV suppliers contacting me with offers to demonstrate and sell their latest products. This burst of understandable commercial interest is always matched by a similar number of contacts expressing understandable objections to drones on civil liberties grounds. These post-publicity contacts demonstrate the wide distance between those who hold views on this subject. We are in no position to purchase UAVs for the reasons given above.

There is no likelihood of this type of technology arriving in UK policing for many years. But should civil authorities open a debate on the use of UAVs, then I will be happy to engage in it with an open mind. For the time being I have a single focus in my ACPO aviation role – the successful roll out of a highly effective national police air service.

Alex Marshall is Chief Constable of Hampshire Constabulary and ACPO lead for the National Police Air Service.