In Brief

Dorset police launch drone unit to fight crime

Heat-seeking cameras take to the skies as a cheaper alternative to helicopters

Devon and Cornwall Police has created the UK’s first full-time drone unit for operations including missing person searches, crime scene photography and traffic collisions.

The heat-seeking cameras are being tested across the UK as a cheaper alternative to helicopters. At £2,000 each, compared with £800 an hour for a helicopter, it's easy to see why police accountants like the cost and versatility of the smaller aircraft, Sky News reports. 

"Drones can even help police track and monitor suspects during a firearm or terrorist incident, as [they] will allow officers to gain vital information, quickly, safely, and allow us to respond effectively at the scene," Chief Superintendent Jim Nye, head of the unit, told Sky News.

Devon and Cornwall Police began testing the drones with Dorset Police in 2015 and it now has a permanent unit with three full-time staff, the BBC reports. Eventually, a team of 40 flying squad officers could be hired.

The drone unit was launched with a demonstration at Westpoint in Exeter, says DevonLive.

"The display saw officers search for a high-risk missing person who was missing from their car and was believed to be in possession of a shotgun."

Police drone pilots, like everyone else in the UK, are bound by Civil Aviation Authority rules governing the flying of unmanned aircraft, adds Sky News. But crucially, "police can override them if they believe the situation necessitates it and that is likely to set off alarm bells with the civil rights lobby". 

The prospect of police using aerial vehicles has raised concerns for US lawmakers and led to calls for legislation mandating that nearly all uses of drones be prohibited without a warrant, the Brookings Institution says. Thirteen states have enacted laws regulating the use of drones by law enforcement officials.

Privacy lawyer Charlotte Harris told Sky News that drones are "the start of a slippery slope". "Will people know if they're being watched, will a drone be something you can identify, will it be something which is going to be in a public place? How many individuals who aren't part of an investigation will be affected by this?" she said.

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