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|
|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|
|15.||Greater Manchester Police||No response|
|18.||Hertfordshire Constabulary||See Bedfordshire|
|23.||Lincolnshire Police||05/08/2020||5||Did not say|
|25.||Metropolitan Police Services||02/09/2020||Over 20||Over 100|
|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|
|32.||South Wales Police||05/10/20||9||39|
|33.||South Yorkshire Police||03/08/2020||15||454|
|36.||Surrey Police (with Sussex)||14/07/2020||23||108|
|37.||Sussex Police||See Surrey|
|38.||Thames Valley Police||17/09/2020||7||142|
|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|
|England and Wales Regional Police Force sub-total||264||5,448|
|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|
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.
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.