Benchmarking police use of drones in the UK

As part of our work looking at the opening of UK skies to large ‘beyond visual line of sight’ drones for surveillance and security purposes, we undertook a comprehensive Freedom of Information (FoI) survey of police use of drones in order to benchmark current police use.

In particular we wanted to investigate:

  • if the use of drones by the police had already increased since 2017 (when HM Inspector of Constabulary reported that 28 of the 43 forces in England and Wales had either purchased a drone or had ready access to one;
  • in which way police forces were using drones;
  • if police forces had taken advantage of the special permission granted to them by the Civil Airspace Authority (CAA) to use drones during the COVID-19 outbreak.

While current police use of drones is restricted to small, quad-copter type systems, police are trialling the use of much larger, military-grade drones that can stay airborne for much greater periods of time.

A summary of the numbers

  • We submitted Freedom of Information (FoI) requests to 48 police forces asking about their use of drones in the first six months of 2020 (Jan – Jun).

This consisted of 43 regional police forces in England and Wales, Police Scotland, Police Service Northern Ireland (PSNI) and 3 specialist forces: Ministry of Defence Police, Civil Nuclear Police and British Transport Police. 

  • At the time of writing we have had responses from 42 police force (88% response rate).

After a great deal of pushing and insistence, responses were received from 38 regional forces in England and Wales, as well as from Police Scotland and PSNI, and 2 of the special forces for a total of 42 responses. We have submitted complaints to the Information Commissioner about the forces who have refused or failed to respond.

  • At least 40 UK police forces now using drones, with only 2 regional police forces (City of London and West Mercia) saying they did not own or operate drones.

At least 33 regional forces now directly own and use drones with 3 others saying they operate drones owned by other police forces or the fire service. In addition, both Police Scotland and PSNI operate drones as do British Transport Police and the Civil Nuclear Constabulary (Ministry of Defence Police have not replied).

  • According to their FoI responses, there are currently at least 288 drones operated by UK police forces around the UK.  In the first 6 months of 2020, there were more than 5,500 overt uses of drones by the police within the UK.

In addition, a number of police forces indicated that they may be using drones for covert surveillance operations but would not discuss this.

  • Only one force – Derbyshire – used the greater laxity given to police forces by the CAA during the Covid crisis in relation to the use of drones.

Derbyshire was the force that was widely challenged about its use of drones to challenge and publicly shame walkers in *the Peak District.  Perhaps unsurprising, Derbyshire has the largest number of complaints – eleven – about its use of drones.

Table 1: Summary of responses in relation to police use of drones in the UK (Jan-Jun 2020)

32 of the responses gave some details about the types of operations that police are using drones for. There is no standard categorisation of types of operations involving drones and forces often describe the same types of operations in different ways.  In order aid analysis we broke the various responses into 12 categories and these are detailed in the table below.

  Police Force Date of Response No. of UAVs

No. of ops used Jan – Jun 2020*

1. Avon and Somerset Constabulary 28/07/2020 Did not say 97
2. Bedfordshire Police (with Camb/Herts) 29/07/2020 15 229
3. Cambridgeshire Constabulary See Bedfordshire
4. Cheshire Constabulary No response
5. City of London Police 23/07/2020 0 0
6. Cleveland Police 10/08/2020 4 30
7. Cumbria Constabulary 28/07/2020 16 17
8. Derbyshire Constabulary 27/07/2020 17 341
9. Devon and Cornwall Police (with Dorset) 24/07/2020 21 342
10. Dorset Police (with Devon/Cornwall) 31/07/2020
11. Durham Constabulary 01/10/2020 5 Did not say
12. Dyfed-Powys Police No response
13. Essex Police 11/09/2020 Did not say 271
14. Gloucestershire Constabulary 02/09/2020 8 92
15. Greater Manchester Police No response
16. Gwent Police 04/08/2020 4 39
17. Hampshire Constabulary 17/08/2020 7 139
18. Hertfordshire Constabulary See Bedfordshire
19. Humberside Police 27/07/2020 2 21
20. Kent Police 30/07/2020 7 57
21. Lancashire Constabulary 29/07/2020 4 598
22. Leicestershire Constabulary 27/07/2020 5 102
23. Lincolnshire Police 05/08/2020 5 Did not say
24. Merseyside Police 29/07/2020 1 0
25. Metropolitan Police Services 02/09/2020 Over 20 Over 100
26. Norfolk Constabulary 13/08/2020 17 80
27. North Wales Police 13/07/2020 5 71
28. North Yorkshire Police 27/07/2020 6 76
29. Northamptonshire Police No response
30. Northumbria Police No response
31. Nottinghamshire Police 17/08/2020 5 496
32. South Wales Police 05/10/20 9 39
33. South Yorkshire Police 03/08/2020 15 454
34. Staffordshire Police 24/07/2020 2 59
35. Suffolk Constabulary 12/08/2020 2 84
36. Surrey Police (with Sussex) 14/07/2020 23 108
37. Sussex Police See Surrey
38. Thames Valley Police 17/09/2020 7 142
39. Warwickshire Police 04/09/2020 2 32
40. West Mercia Police 13/08/2020 0 32
41. West Midlands Police 29/07/2020 8 867
42. West Yorkshire Police 05/08/2020 12 120
43. Wiltshire Police 30/07/2020 10 313
England and Wales Regional Police Force sub-total 264 5,448
44.     Police Scotland 05/08/2020 8 56
45.     Police Service Northern Ireland 19/08/2020 4 24
46.     British Transport Police 28/07/2020 11 17
47.     Civil Nuclear Constabulary 30/09/2020 1 0
48.     Ministry of Defence Police No Response
  Totals 288 5,545

How are drones being used by the police?

32 of the responses received gave some details about the types of operations in which police are using drones. There is no standard categorisation of types of operations involving drones and different forces described the same types of operations in different ways. In order to aid analysis, we broke the various responses into 12 categories and these are detailed in the table below.

Monitoring protests and public events

All police force that gave some details of how they were using drones said that they were being used for ‘aerial searches’ including looking for missing persons, while more than half said they were used in support of Road Traffic Collision investigations (56%) and Crime Scene Investigations (66%). Other significant uses included for training and demonstration purposes (i.e. demonstrating how they worked) (41%) and for command and control of operations (37%).

Of particular interest for our purposes were statistics in relations to police use of drones for monitoring protests and public order situations (37%) and public events (31%).  Lincolnshire Police reported that in the time frame (Jan – Jun 2020) they had used a drone to monitor a Black Lives Matter protest and a protest at an immigration centre, while West Midlands police reported that they had used a drone to monitor 4 separate protests. Other forces were not forthcoming with details about how many or which protests were monitored.  In addition, 10 police forces mentioned that they had used drones to monitor ‘public events’ including sports fixtures and music festivals.


Four forces (Derbyshire, Devon and Cornwall, Dorset, and West Midlands) reported using drones as part of the response to the Covid pandemic, including monitoring breaches of Covid restrictions. Surrey Police also deployed a drone to play recorded messages to those suspected of breaching Covid guidelines but did not report this in their FoI response.

Only Derbyshire, however, reported using the exemption granted to police forces by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to use drones with more latitude during the Covid crisis (that is to fly them higher than normal and/or closer to members of the public). Derbyshire was the force that was widely condemned for its use of drones to challenge and publicly shame walkers in the Peak District.  Perhaps unsurprising, Derbyshire is the force that reported the largest number of complaints – eleven – about its use of drones.

What is worth highlighting is that proponents of the use of drones argue that current regulations are too restrictive and are supressing the use of drones.  However, we have seen in this case that when regulations were loosened, there was seemingly very little appetite or need to utilize the exemption.

Privacy Controls

Essex Police Drone Unit

While some will no doubt argue that we should be unconcerned about the increasing use of drones by the police, the way they are beginning to be used to monitor public protests, wider public events and the way they were used to overly-aggressively enforce public-distancing guidelines should ring alarm bells.

Drones significantly increase surveillance capacity and intrude on public privacy. Drones gather large amounts of data through electronic and optical sensors very quickly. What happens to that data and how it is handled should be subject to proper oversight and public agreement.

The government is actively opening up UK airspace to large ‘beyond visual line of sight’ drones for state and commercial use and it is highly likely that both the public and private security sector will quickly adopt such drones for surveillance purposes. Combining these systems with facial recognition technology and wider area surveillance technology would seriously impact on public privacy within the UK.  This should be resisted and there should be a proper and open public and parliamentary debate about appropriate safety and privacy controls over the use of BVLOS drones in the UK.

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