Police could use military-grade drones to track criminals in major technological upgrade

Police helicopters could be replaced with military-grade drones as part of a major technology upgrade for some forces in England and Wales.

The chair of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, Donna Jones, revealed that chiefs are “pushing hard” for drones to be used as a “viable alternative” to expensive helicopters in Home Office discussions.

All forces currently pay to fund the National Police Aerial Service at a cost of more than £40m a year, but Ms Jones said on Wednesday that around a third wanted to use drones.

“I think drones can play a role in replacing the National Police Service in the future. These helicopters are incredibly expensive,” he revealed at a policing conference in London on Wednesday.

“Drones are much faster. They are much more agile. The technology is now improving incredibly and the police and crime commissioners have been pushing hard at the Home Office that drones should be a very viable alternative.”

But he admitted that aviation laws would need to change for drone development, with new rules allowing military-style drones that are allowed to fly higher with the pilot positioned at a greater distance.

Currently, quadcopter-style drones used by police require the pilot to be within 300 to 500 meters of the device, although the cameras can zoom from up to three miles away.

Police and Crime Commissioner for Hampshire Donna Jones (Andrew Matthews/PA)

(PA file)

Ms Jones said: “But the military ones are great. They are much more capable, they can go much higher. And of course this makes them very useful for covert policing as well.

“So we have represented through the APCC to the home office about this and the Police Secretary is aware and we will have ongoing discussions which could potentially save tens of millions of pounds.”

He estimated it could take more than two years to make progress on the plans.

The drones that could be used look more like miniature aircraft than those currently used by police.

The police's chief scientific adviser, Paul Taylor, insisted police helicopters had not “had their day”, but said drones could be part of a range of options to help forces respond quickly to incidents.

It comes as the National Council of Police Chiefs announced it was launching a new special Science and Technology Committee, with cutting-edge advances likely to transform policing in the coming years.

A revolutionary digital fingerprint recognition will allow police to identify suspects from fingerprint traces in real time at crime scenes, with the technology speeding up the process by an average of three days per case.

While advanced facial recognition technology will transform research on a similar level to DNA, the NPCC claims. It comes after research by South Wales Police found that retrospective facial recognition takes minutes to identify a suspect, compared to an average of 14 days without it.

Addressing a summit of police chiefs on Wednesday, Chief Constable Gavin Stephens said: “I believe that science and technology will be the single biggest driver of policing reform in the coming years. The pace is awe-inspiring, daunting and exciting at the same time.

“As the use of technology increasingly benefits society, it also benefits criminals and those who wish to harm our communities. Policing cannot stand still as technology evolves. If we do, our effectiveness in keeping people safe will quickly erode.

“Innovation and all that it brings simply enables our workforce to do their jobs better. We need to push the boundaries of innovation. be more agile, ensure early adoption and, where proven to work, have the ability to scale quickly nationally.”