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Drones valuable to policing but should not replace manned helicopters says National Police Air Service

A police officer flying a drone.

By Charlie McNalus

Drones are set to become more widely used by the National Police Air Service as a more efficient way of policing.

Police helicopter.

The Home Office is currently testing which models will work best alongside helicopters, to determine which drones would offer the best functions for policing, and would be of greatest use to officers on the ground.

The drones’ tasks include helping search for missing people, policing large scale events and tackling anti-social behaviour.

Fourteen police forces in England and Wales are already using small unmanned aircraft to carry out a wide range of tasks.

There are advantages to using drones, such as them being cheaper and safer, but also disadvantages including them not being fast enough or robust enough to carry out heavy duties.

Russ Woolford, 53, drones lead for NPAS, said: “Drones are cheaper than helicopters certainly, but forces are finding that in order to have a properly functioning drone team they need people, they need vehicles and they need equipment.

View from a police helicopter mid flight.

“So very often with the functionality that they get from drones, forces are now finding drones complement what the National Police Air Service does rather than replaces it.”

Mr Woolford made the point that helicopters have an advantage over drones because they deliver a very fast and dynamic policing service, and one that can adapt very quickly to changes.

He added: “A drone would not be able to do certain tasks and would need plenty of guidance.”

NPAS is hoping to have drones assisting its work but they will only be used for light duties and will not replace helicopters.

Mr Woolford said: “So for example, for a vehicle pursuit, the helicopters are ideal because they can keep up with the vehicle in pursuit, they can change direction and the people inside it can make quick decisions about what to do.

“You can’t really do that with a drone unless it’s very, very localised.”


What is the National Police Air Service?

The National Police Air Service became independent on 1 October 2012, providing 19 helicopters operating from 17 bases across England and Wales.

It replaced the previous structure whereby police forces operated their own helicopters, either individually or teaming up with other smaller force areas.

The NPAS is now a national service but acts regionally. The focus of NPAS is “to deliver a service that is more cost effective and balances saving money with the need to ensure the police service has a fast, deployable asset”.

The helicopters are often used to help locate missing people and vulnerable people who are at risk. They can cover large areas of land which helps officers on the ground.


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