Officially we are using Small Unmanned Aircraft (SUA), within an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) as defined by the CAA. They are also widely known as UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), but it is acceptable to use the commonly understood description of 'drones'.

They are remotely operated aircraft, the use of which are now in common usage by both private individuals, and commercial operators. Most have 4 rotors (quadcopter), but some have 6 (hexacopter) or 8 (octocopter), which provide greater stability, lift, and in-built redundancy.

Our drones

We are currently flying two DJI Inspire 1 v2. In the future we hope to include other more capable and versatile craft.

Cost

They range in price from £20 to £200,000 and upwards. A good quality aircraft that uses GPS and autonomous technology can be obtained for a little as £500. Large film companies will use multi-rotor craft that can carry a heavy payload camera system. Our current Drones cost about £1500 for the basic model; however we require additional batteries and other equipment to ensure safety and to conduct commercial operations.

Images

They can capture still and video images, up to 4k quality, although we would generally only capture in 1080p due to the limitations of processing the images. We also have a thermal imaging capability.

In the future we would hope to include a zoom capability also.

Reasons for use

To:

  • Assist with searches for missing people,
  • assist with investigations into road traffic collisions,
  • major crime incidents and Industrial Accident investigation.
  • Assist with event planning and management.
  • Provide situational awareness to officers and Commanders in a variety of policing situations.

They will not be used for general patrol/surveillance.

Weather

Our current drones cannot fly in wet weather due to the risk of a motor being damaged. Some more expensive drones can fly in wet weather and high wind, e.g. the Aeryon Skyranger flown by Sussex Police; however they cost £64k each.

Height of flight

This depends on the drone. Most consumer drones e.g. the popular DJI Phantom 3 Standard have a range between 500-1000 meters, though bear in mind that in the UK the CAA guidelines say you shouldn't fly higher than 120m from ground level.

The Inspire 1 can technically reach an altitude of 4500m (that’s 14,673 feet in old money!).

Flight length

This depends on the drone. Ours will fly for approximately 19 minutes, wind and temperature dependent. Very cheap ones maybe only a few minutes, but some widely used models will stay up for 27-30 minutes.

With this in mind we have multiple batteries to extend the flying time, though obviously the drone has to come down to change the battery!

Flying at night

Flying in darkness carries risk. Ideally for night flights the pilot will have had the opportunity to undertake a recce in daylight, however for dynamic deployments this might not be possible. Use of the thermal imaging camera is particularly useful at night, and most night flights will only use this camera.

Laws

The person in charge of a SUA must:

  • not allow anything to drop from the aircraft.
  • not fly, unless reasonably satisfied that the flight can be made safely.
  • maintain unaided visual contact to monitor the aircraft and avoid collisions (up to maximum to 500m horizontal and 400ft vertical distance from the pilot).
  • not fly within 50m of any person, vehicle or property not under the control of the pilot (except during take-off or landing when this distance is reduced to 30m).
  • not fly over or within 150m of a congested area.
  • not fly over or within 150m of any organized event of over 1000 people.
  • not cause an unacceptable risk to any person.

For the commercial user, including emergency services, there are stringent checks, including both a written and practical test, and a formal permission is required from the CAA.

Third party insurance is also required. There are some legal exemptions for emergency service use. We recommend using the Drone Safe app which can be downloaded for free.

Drones and the sea

Sea spray is corrosive, not to mention it would short-out the motors if it got in there, so we’d certainly stay well above the risk of water ingress.

Difficulty of flying

The difficulty level of learning to fly a drone varies depending on the person and what type of drone they are flying. For example, if a person has good sensorimotor skills and hand-eye coordination, then learning to fly a drone may not seem very difficult to them. In addition, learning to fly a high-end drone may be easier then learning to fly on a cheaper drone; this is because more expensive drones usually have many built-in flight assistance features.

Drone pilots

The force currently has 15 trained pilots across the force area, all of whom fly the drones as an additional skill to their normal everyday duties. We may require more in the future, however this hasn’t yet been decided as we are in the initial trial period.

A drone pilot has to pass a theory exam and practical flight test. The theory exam tests the pilot’s knowledge of basic aeronautical knowledge, similar to some of that required by a conventional pilot.

There are also opportunities to become a Drone Spotter.

Drone spotters

A Spotter is effectively an assistant to the Pilot, and our deployment policy requires that for most deployments there must be either two Pilots, or a Pilot accompanied by a Spotter. In urgent high risk incidents a pilot may have to deploy alone, or with an untrained spotter subject to a risk assessment.

In some more complicated deployments more than one spotter may be required, e.g. in high risk areas, or for night flights. We have trained a number of spotters who are located across the force area.

Public tasking of police drones

The public won’t be able to task a police drone to be deployed, as they will be for police deployment only. We will also deploy a drone in support of another emergency service or partner agency if required where appropriate.

Recording

We will only record data (stills and video images) when there is a policing purpose, and will at all times seek to focus on the subject of the deployment and keep any collateral intrusion to a minimum.

Nuisance drones

It is widely recognised that drones flying overhead or nearby can be annoying to some people, especially if the drone is over your home or garden, however generally we do not own the airspace above our land. Anyone operating such a drone for recreational use is required to follow guidelines published by the Civil Aviation Authority. These state that the drone must not endanger anyone or anything; must be kept within sight of the operator; and must not be flown above 400 feet, in congested areas (not within 150m) or within 50 metres of a person, vehicle or building. If you think that the drone is being operated in breach of the CAA code you should firstly discuss the issue with the individual causing the problem to explain your concerns. As a last resort, notify your local police service. See the CAA website for further guidance.

Drone footage of you or your property

The police drone will only record data (either stills or video images) if there is a policing purpose for it. In the same way the police helicopter might be over or near your home, it does not necessarily mean it is recording images, or even that it is observing you or your property.

Any data recorded will only be retained if there is a requirement, and thereafter will be retained subject to relevant legislation governing its retention or disposal.

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 gives a general right of access to all types of recorded information held by public authorities, sets out exemptions from that right and places a number of obligations on public authorities. Data Protection legislation gives an individual the right to have a copy of any personal data held about them by North Wales Police, unless an exemption applies. It is limited to information relating to the applicant only and will not give access to information relating to other individuals.

Concerts, football matches and public events 

An operator must not fly over or within 150m of any organized event of over 1000 people. In order to fly over congested areas or crowds the operator must either have special permission.