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Air support: unlocking the potential of drones

Using only a fraction of the technology available is already revolutionising policing in Thames Valley and Hampshire, with more opportunities just over the horizon.

Officers fly drones at Thames Valley training centre in Sulhamstead

Officers fly drones at Thames Valley training centre in Sulhamstead

Date - 11th August 2021
By - Chloe Livadeas
1 Comment 1 Comment}

Sergeant Andy Sparshott is UAS Operations Manager at Hampshire Constabulary, which shares a Drone Unit with Thames Valley Police.

He hailed the “amazing work” they are doing with the technology. “But there is so much more potential," he told Police Oracle. "And the only thing that's restricting that currently is the airspace restrictions.”

The drones have been aiding successes in major incidents, public order, crime scene investigation planning, missing persons - all the while saving costs and creating less noise and environmental pollution.

“We are only using a small fraction of the technology,” said Sgt Sparshott.

“But what we're using it for is saving lives, fighting crime and capturing criminals.”

At first Thames Valley and Hampshire held back on introducing drones and let other forces test the water - which can be treacherous with legislation, regulations, tech failures and a wary public perception.

One memorable PR disaster was Derbyshire Constabulary’s use of a drone to spy on walkers in the Peak District during the first lockdown.

“That made me cringe,” said Sgt Sparshott.

“As a result of that, no other force nationally wanted drones to be used for anything related to COVID.”

He said the public were concerned about “collateral intrusion” and they are careful to only deploy drones for “legitimate policing purposes”.

“Because then if something does go wrong, we can then say to the public that we were responding in relation to a crime, or to a high risk missing person where we believed life was at risk.

“It's all about threat, harm and risk, proportionality, and necessity.”

The Hampshire and Thames Valley unit started off as a proof of concept project in 2019 with 26 pilots and six drones. That pilot was such a success that the chief constables of both forces agreed to commit to a full-time capability.

The unit has invested in three types of drones, with the high ticket item  undoubtedly being their DJI M300. Costing £21,000, it can withstand heavy rain and up to 40mph winds.

DJI M300

The drone’s very-high zoom camera (worth £7,500) is able to read the name of a boat in a harbour on the south coast from Hampshire headquarters 12km away.

Commenting on the hefty price tag, Sgt Sparshott says it equates to seven helicopter deployments.

“And we have already done over 50 deployments with that one drone alone,” he said. “It really speaks for itself.

“The money we spend and the taxpayers’ perception of what we spend our money on is relevant. But for me, what is more relevant is the operational support that it gives our officers on the frontline to deal with those criminals and high risk missing people.”

The unit recently conducted a person/body recovery exercise over the River Thames at Winsor. The day was foggy and no helicopter would have been able to respond in those conditions. Bad weather used to mean no air-capability.

Not anymore. Thermal imaging on the camera along with its strobe lights meant the person was found.

“Why do I it? What's the kick?” said Sgt Sparshott. “The kick out of it is that a drone with a skilled drone pilot finds that at risk missing person who might have otherwise died and returns them home to their loved ones.”

By using drones forces don’t have to wake up the whole neighbourhood at 2am looking for a burglar with a helicopter, since the buzz of a drone is much less invasive.

Parrot Anafi USA 

Apparently some people have been excited to see a police drone.

Sgt Sparshott’s officers were recently deployed to a break-in at a jewellery shop and located the robber who thought he could hide under the scaffolding using the drone’s thermal imagery.

He then asked what the buzzing above his head had been and was really excited to learn they were using a drone. He asked if the officers would mind waiting for it so he could see it before they put him in the van and took him into custody and they obliged.

The forces also use drones at protests and football matches where they anticipate violence. Sgt Sparshott said when dealing with disorder, the presence of the drone has a positive impact –similar to a body worn video.

“Because it's like they know that it's got cameras on board. And they'll think twice about throwing something.”

The unit's officers are able to livestream footage straight from the drone to any officers’ laptop or mobile phones via Microsoft Teams, giving situational awareness.

They have also been used in the search for a murder victim to see if there’s been any soil disturbance in an area. When a body decomposes it releases nitrogen which helps plant growth, so the drone looks for a rectangle shape of longer grass than the surroundings.

But will drones replace helicopters? "We can confidently say that drones can currently do all of the work that helicopters are currently doing bar three things,” said Sgt Sparshott.

The first two are vehicle pursuits and if the subject is on the move on foot because the regulations don’t allow the drone to be flown beyond the visual line of sight (500m).

Authorised Professional Practise from the College of Policing doesn’t exist for drones. Forces operate drones under civil aviation regulations and licence.

“We have to comply with a lot of stuff that is fairly alien to policing,” said Sgt Sparshott. And it's these regulations that mean forces still have a need for helicopters. 

Another limitation of a drone is it can’t transport resources and personnel.

“I can't attach a dog handler and a dog and a firearms officer to this drone. But that's the future.” said Sgt Sparshott. “Yes, it is the future,” he insists.

Believe it or not the technology already exists to fly people in drones. For years police in Dubai have been riding around responding to incidents on a Hoverbike – a huge drone which is essentially a flying motorbike.

In Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands and Norway they have drones that are effectively flying defibrillators.

“It's tech that already exists. It's already in use,” said Sgt Sparshott. “And the only thing that's preventing us from using it in this country are the airspace regulations.”

Thames Valley is now linking with its commercial industry partners who are already looking at creating beyond the visual line of sight corridors to fly new types of drones.

So watch this airspace. 

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24229540 - Thu, 12 August 2021

Excellent, innovative work!