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Full-time flying squad: Police launch first 24-hour drone unit

The drones are helping in missing person searches, crime scene photography and responding to traffic collisions.

Two police forces in the South West have set up the UK's first operational drone squad to fight crime.

Forces up and down the country have been trialling the use of the mini aircraft as a cheaper alternative to helicopters for a number of roles.

But now Devon and Cornwall police and the Dorset force have combined to launch a unit which will eventually have 40 officers trained to fly the drones.

At £2,000 each, compared with £800 an hour for a helicopter, it's easy to see why police accountants like the DJI Inspire 1s drone option, but senior officers say the new unit will add flexibility and speed to a range of operations.

The full-time drone unit will be run from Devon and Cornwall and Dorset Police forces

The head of the unit, Chief Superintendent Jim Nye, said: "Drones will aid officers as part of missing person searches; crime scene photography; responding to major road traffic collisions; coastal and woodland searches and to combat wildlife crime.

"Drones can even help police track and monitor suspects during a firearm or terrorist incident, as it will allow officers to gain vital information, quickly, safely, and allow us to respond effectively at the scene."

The two forces have been monitoring the effectiveness of drones in a variety of scenarios, and with heat-seeking cameras available they can be used both day and night.

An officer from Devon and Cornwall Police with the DJI Inspire 1s drone

The Police Federation, which represents rank and file officers, says the new equipment will help police forces facing cuts to their budgets.

But Phill Matthews from the federation says: "It's no coincidence the financial predicament that every force up and down the country has found themselves in has forced them to look at new technology and to look at doing things differently.

"What the cuts have done have focused people's minds a bit at looking at different ways and avenues."

Privacy lawyer Charlotte Harris says drones are "the start of a slippery slope".

"Will people know if they're being watched, will a drone be something you can identify, will it be something which is going to be in a public place, how many individuals who aren't part of an investigation will be affected by this?"

The police drone pilots, like everyone else in the UK, will be bound by civil aviation authority rules governing the flying of the unmanned aircraft.

But crucially, police can override them if they believe the situation necessitates it and that is likely to set off alarm bells with the civil rights lobby.

Drones from the trial have been used to help secure convictions in court cases, with evidence from them being used in jury bundles.

They have also located missing people and taken images of major crime scenes.

Mr Nye said that in the future, he anticipated that drones would be used to assist in counter-terrorism operations.

By David Bowden, Senior News Correspondent

Friday 14 July 2017 18:18, UK

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