Where There’s Smoke, There’s A Mirror
For several months the UK media has been awash with stories of how different rural police forces are developing their own in-house drone units to provide localised air support.
The headlines are usually quite catchy such as Sky News with, “Full Time Flying Squad” to announce the launch of the UK’s first 24-hour drone unit to investigate crimes and search for missing people.
The stories inevitably focus on claims that drones are a rapidly advancing low cost alternative to using police helicopters. Each police force that brings drones into operational use also claims to have trialled them extensively for between 1-2 years and as such the public are assured it’s not money wasted or boys playing with toys.
Such has been the uptake in police drone use the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has issued a special exemption which allows them to fly 3km away from the police pilot without having to maintain any line of sight of the drone or deploy forward observers.
The media seem to embrace the idea along with the CAA and Government, but there is currently no national framework for training police drone pilots, no agreed best practices, no criteria for training for Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) flights, and no evidence to show they’re being deployed effectively.
Key Performance Indicators
Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are measurable values that demonstrate how effectively a business or department is hitting its objectives. In terms of drone units these are measurements to demonstrate that drones are effective under certain criteria that should be established prior to deploying the unit operationally.
During the testing phase of drone units it would be expected that scenarios would be tested to see how well drones perform compared to other currently available police assets such as traffic officers, dog units, helicopters etc. The KPIs that one would look for would be positive outcomes with a shorter time frame or cost basis.
In terms of time versus cost basis the key factor would be human life. In situations where there is no human life risk time is no longer the critical value, cost is.
So if drones can perform the same outcomes in non-life threatening situations but take 4 times longer than say a helicopter this would be a positive performance indicator for the drone – it’s saving cost without risking life.
Where human life is a factor time and probability of detection are the most important criteria, cost isn’t a significant value. The reason is because using “saving money” as a reason for endangering human life doesn’t stand up well in an Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) investigation or corporate manslaughter cases.
When testing scenarios for drone units Law Enforcement (LE) authorities need to establish a series of events that would warrant drones being deployed. These would be demonstrated by KPIs showing where drones were most effective in either saving life or reducing costs with a significantly increased probability than other available resources.
On the basis of such testing LE professionals would have ample data to support their budget requests for developing a drone unit to operational level. They would then continue to gather data to check that drones were being used effectively in accordance with the previous testing.
In such an environment you would expect that LE professionals would deploy drone units to operational levels in clearly phased incremental steps. Such a scenario is exactly what happened in Canada when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) began their drone programme.
The RCMP developed their operational use of drones along clearly defined pathways that put neither the public or the future of the drone unit at risk. They began with a collision reconstruction programme that was based on cost saving, public risk, and privacy issues.
Only after they had established the first phase of their development did they go on to expanding into major crime scene and search and rescue operations. It was much later they then expanded the programme once more to include BVLOS flights and further more complex deployments.
In the UK however there is no police force presently adopting such an approach. Instead there seems to be a rush for headlines and positive outcomes across all types of deployment and when asked for any evidence or data of their effectiveness you’re met with a wall of silence.
Claims and Data
One of the most worrying claims about police drone use is their effectiveness in search and rescue scenarios. With no data whatsoever senior police officers are routinely claiming that they are an effective resource in missing person cases.
Even the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for drones, Assistant Chief Constable Steve Barry told the Independent:
“There may be an opportunity at some point in the future to rationalise what we need our cops to do because we find drones can do it more effectively and more cost-efficiently… an example of that would be looking for missing people.”
The most realistic scenario where a drone is an effective tool in missing person searches is when it’s in response to a Road Traffic Collision (RTC) and the injured person has left the vehicle. In such scenarios the person may be in close proximity to the vehicle, so a drone can easily cover a square kilometre of terrain with thermal imaging to assist locating the person. Beyond that you really need air support that’s highly moveable such as a helicopter or fixed wing aircraft.
At the Police Aviation Conference (PAvCon) in Doncaster this year the Belgian Federal Police described drones as a fixed area asset. They countered the notion that as aircraft they are moveable assets because they are fixed to the location of the operator. They based this statement on years of experience of operating drones and helicopters and said that although drones do have their place, they are highly localised.
At this point some people usually chime in with the claim that drone technology is rapidly advancing along with the techniques of using them and this counters such statements, however this simply isn’t true.
The technological developments of drones are principally that they’re becoming cheaper to buy. For several years there have been drones available that are waterproof, highly wind resistant, FLIR capable, tethered, high speed, and so on. They just cost a lot more than your average DJI Inspire with a thermal camera.
Likewise the software to control drones and process the data has the same architecture and outcomes. All that’s happened is that it’s a bit smoother, easier to use and faster to process. In terms of drone capabilities there hasn’t been any significant new capability come to market over the past 2 years. The capabilities have just become cheaper so you can get the same capabilities for £10,000 that would previously have cost you over £80,000.
The same goes for search and rescue techniques. The methods of area searches has remained fairly static for some time. There’s a lot of research already into human behaviour patterns when lost that dictate the best approach to searching for someone in different conditions. What’s new is how to apply that knowledge to drones and integrate them into current working models.
The other key difference between drones and helicopters when searching for a missing person is the team that’s operating them.
In the UK most police helicopters are operated by pilots with extensive military experience – that’s how they got their licence to fly and enough flight hours on type to work commercially. They’ll also most likely have experience of training in search and rescue techniques from the military.
When you then consider that the crew also includes other police personnel, and their combined training in search techniques, you have a resource that is highly mobile with a very experienced search team on board. That’s even before you get into the better capabilities of their cameras.
Most police drones are flown by officers who may have no prior search and rescue training. Their qualification for the job may be just that they are police officers with an interest in drones and have passed a training course for using a drone commercially. Such training courses take a few days and cover the basics of flight, law, mission planning etc. They don’t cover search and rescue techniques.
Additionally because there is no overarching framework for police drone use in the UK there is no guarantee that the standards of one police force’s pilots will be in any way comparable with another. This leads to a postcode lottery in terms of drone provision. Wiltshire Constabulary don’t even have full-time police officers responsible for their drone unit. It’s made up entirely of volunteers which leads to its own problems of professional standards and conduct.
Other than RTCs drones are a valuable asset in terms of highly localised searches such as checking areas where it’s dangerous for humans, such as certain areas of building sites or watercourses. Or they can be used to establish safe access to areas or secure safe routes for a foot team to conduct a ground search. Alternatively they can be used to provide limited air support whilst waiting for the arrival of helicopter support.
What drones aren’t are a viable alternative to air support from helicopters and fixed wing aircraft and to suggest that they can be used as such is quite dangerous.
Are Lives at Risk?
One such recent example was when the Licolnshire Police drone team published a tweet on 18th August 2017 announcing they’d deployed in response to a suicidal male. It stated:
“Grave yard and large open area scanned. Male located by officers elsewhere safe and well.”
I asked them if they’d also called in the National Police Air Service (NPAS) to provide helicopter support or whether they had solely relied upon ground assets and the drone team. They didn’t reply.
This raises a very important point, at what stage in the incident is a decision made to deploy the drone team and is that instead of calling in NPAS or in addition to it?
If an officer in command of a missing person search takes the decision to use drones rather than a police helicopter are there valid, proven reasons for doing so?
At present there is no data that would support such a decision at operational level. There is no scientific study that demonstrates drones are more effective than helicopters in finding missing people. As such if a decision was taken to use drones instead of a helicopter to find a vulnerable missing person and that person died there would be serious questions about whether the police had failed in their duty.
I don’t know the specifics of this case, but the lack of response by Lincolnshire Police’s drone team illustrates the problem. The police are keen for positive headlines, but when questioned aren’t willing to supply further details.
I also asked the Essex Police drone team the following question:
“I’m interested to know what key factors you’ve identified to warrant deployment of a drone over other assets. What situations would warrant drone use over NPAS, other than financial/response time. How you would establish an outcome has been positively accomplished with a drone that otherwise wouldn’t have been accomplished with ground based assets or wouldn’t have been accomplished as quickly.”
Their initial response was to ask how NPAS measure their effectiveness, but eventually I managed to drag the following statement out of them:
“We gather data of flight times and in the main perform a different role to NPAS”
Data of flight times is basic reporting that’s required by the CAA for flight logs, it is literally the bare minimum of data recording that the law stipulates.
This is echoed by Inspector Ed Delderfield of Lincolnshire Police who said in a recent interview:
“We have very strict rules in place and all flight paths of the drones are stored centrally so that they can be checked if a complaint comes in and these cannot be deleted. If we have any officers that stray from the rules stipulated they will get no second chances and their flight privileges will be taken away.”
I also asked Alliance Police Drones who are the combined drone team for Devon & Cornwall, and Dorset Police forces, what outcomes the drone helped achieve at the Boardmasters 2017 festival that wouldn’t have been achievable by any other assets. Superintendent Ian Drummond-Smith replied that it had saved them from having to deploy the NPAS helicopter twice.
I asked for further details at which point Superintendent Drummond-Smith referred me back to the Alliance Police Drones team who then didn’t answer. When pushed they referred me to the manager of the drone unit, Andrew Hamilton despite the fact that he was on holiday.
Why Superintendent Drummond-Smith was unable to answer the question I don’t know as he was one of the police silver commanders for Boardmasters 2017, so he would have known the details of the incidents.
Once again it’s a bold claim which may be true, but we have no way of knowing as the police are clearly reluctant to provide any details.
I’m still waiting for a response from Mr Hamilton and will update this post as and when anything ever materialises.
The pattern that’s beginning to emerge with UK police drone use is that its primary purpose appears to be to save money and generate positive headlines.
Every police force using drones has stated that they’ve trialled drones before deploying them operationally, yet none of them can identify any key measures that are being taken to show they are being used effectively. Bold claims are made, yet when questioned no answers or evidence is provided.
One such example is Wiltshire Police’s drone unit. On 18th August 2017 the head of their drone team stated that it had been deployed 112 times in the past 4 months. What was unusual about this announcement was that it came not from Wiltshire Police but from the individual’s personal Twitter account.
Here we see “official” Police statistics being released to the public via a private individual’s own Twitter account along with a bold claim that they’d, “Caught offenders and saved lives.”
I tried to ask the Wiltshire Police drone team how many offenders the drone had caught and how many lives they’d saved, but for some reason they’ve blocked me from being able to communicate with them via Twitter.
If police drones had been trialled properly you would expect that there would be key measures in place and a wealth of data to support the claims that they can help produce outcomes more effectively than current assets. You would then also expect that on deployment operationally there would be even more data to prove they were being used effectively.
Not one single UK police force that I’ve asked has been able to state how they are measuring the effectiveness of their drone programme. That raises obvious concerns.
Even Sussex Police who have the aforementioned Steve Barry (NPCC drone lead) as their Assistant Chief Constable refused to give any details on how they measure the effectiveness of their drone unit.
Are we being sold the need for police use of drones on the basis of assumptions and anecdotal claims? If not where is the evidence, where is the data? And why are the police so reluctant to engage with questions about how they’re using drones?
I’ve participated in research to help establish the effectiveness of drones as search assets with the Centre for Search Research and Newcastle University. I’m a member of the UK Civil Air Patrol and have assisted in providing localised drone air support to the emergency services and British Army. I’m also a great supporter of the technology and believe it has many real world benefits to modern policing.
I’m in the choir the police are preaching to about the benefits of drones, yet I’m alarmed that there is such a varied approach and lack of supporting evidence for the current drive to deploy police drones.
Headlines aside there is a very real danger that a lack of phased development of police drone programmes throughout the UK means that every time they’re deployed officers are risking the future of the programme. It only takes one bad deployment, one over reliance or misunderstanding of its capacity to turn the wind of the present positive stories to negative ones.
Without adequate safeguards in place it’s only a matter of time before we see a drone crash, a flyaway, or a life lost due to deploying a drone when a helicopter should have been called in. If the approach is to use drones to save money rather than to improve the effectiveness of policing then it won’t be long before something goes wrong.
Despite my best efforts to engage with various police drone units I’m left feeling that at present police use of drones is more smoke and mirrors than data and evidence of their effectiveness.
Since publishing this post Inspector Ed Delderfield of Lincolnshire Police spoke with their drone operator and confirmed the reason it had been deployed was because the officer was in the immediate vicinity of a location the missing person was believed to be. The drone officer was tasked with searching this area only and Inspector Delderfield agrees that for the most part helicopters are the best asset to use in search and rescue operations.
He also stated that Lincolnshire Police are adopting a staged development of drones, however in my opinion this is a difficult statement to support. Lincolnshire Police have only just begun to use drones operationally, Inspector Delderfield was the first officer in the force to pass his drone flight test on 12th July 2017. Just over a month later a different officer deployed a drone operationally as part of a search and rescue mission to find a suicidal male. That’s not a staged development, it’s exactly the type of rushed deployment strategy that gives serious cause for concern.
Further questions were raised when Superintendent Phil Vickers of Lincolnshire Police retweeted a search and rescue video from NPAS Birmingham. The video shows an NPAS unit directing ground officers to a vulnerable elderly missing person they’ve located. Superintendent Vickers retweeted it with the comment, “This video sums up a key reason for investing in @lincsCOPter team – Protecting Vulnerable people from harm”.
It’s obvious now that the reason for police investment in drones is to try and replace NPAS helicopters. Drones are seen as a cheaper alternative for missing person searches but there is no evidence to prove they are effective. There is no sign any of the pilots have undergone search and rescue training and this is a grave concern.
If any police force chooses to use drones in a vulnerable missing person search without also calling in helicopter support lives are being put at risk. The reason I say this is because there is no empirical data proving drones are effective in search and rescue scenarios. Moreover there is no indication that any police drone operator has ever undergone search and rescue training.
Technology will not fill in the blanks. Having a FLIR camera doesn’t mean that you know how to perform a creeping line search, choke point search, expanding box search, or any other proven method for clearing an area.
What technology can do is give the police the overconfidence to believe they are deploying effectively whilst operating with huge skill gaps. There is precedent for holding back technology until it has been proven effective and safe in policing yet for some reason this has been thrown to the wind with drones.
There is a continued downward pressure on police budgets and the effect is that several forces are jumping headfirst into drone units as a way to maintain their performance results at a lower overall cost. I understand that, but I cannot condone the promotion of this false and potentially life threatening narrative. Before this situation gets out of hand and before life is lost through an over reliance on drones there does need to be greater oversight and support at a national level.
This isn’t just my view, it’s one that some police drone operators also hold. As Inspector Deldefeld told me, “For the record I believe strongly that NPAS should strategically take the lead in standardising the UK LE approach to drones.”
Whether it’s NPAS or another body isn’t so important. What is important is that drone use by police in the UK needs desperately to be standardised. Where it’s intended to be used to support search and rescue efforts, for instance in providing stop gap cover whilst waiting for helicopter support, the operators need to be trained in search and rescue techniques.
Drones can be a highly effective part of the modern policing toolkit but only if their use is appropriately targeted, effectively monitored, and expectations are realistically managed.