Police trialling drones to replace helicopters to pursue suspects

The National Police Air Service has tested an Israeli-built military drone, which can fly for 36 hours non-stop

Ground crew walks next to the Israeli Elbit Systems Ltd. Hermes 900 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) during a presentation at the airbase in the central Swiss town of Emmen October 16, 2012. 
A Hermes 900 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) during a presentation at the airbase in the central Swiss town of Emmen Credit: Pascal Lauener/REUTERS

Long-range drones are being trialled to replace police helicopters in the pursuit of suspects and searches for missing people, the Home Office has revealed.

The National Police Air Service (NPAS), which flies helicopters for the 43 forces in England and Wales, has tested an Israeli-built military drone that was first used in the 2014 Gaza war to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance against Hamas terrorists.

The NPAS wanted to see how the Hermes 900 drone compared with its current fleet of 19 helicopters and four fixed-wing planes in key tasks including searching for missing people and suspects, vehicle pursuits, surveillance of protests and manhunts for criminals.

A technical report is now being prepared for Home Office ministers to determine if the drone could be recruited to the police 'air force' because of its superior aerial capabilities, namely the time it can stay aloft and heights it can reach to silently spy on locations and search for suspects.

The drone can fly for 36 hours non-stop, ten times the three hours and 55 minutes that the NPAS’s current generation of EC135 and EC145 helicopters can stay aloft.

It can also fly higher than Everest (30,000 feet), compared with a helicopter’s 18,000 feet, which means that with its quieter propellor engines it can remain almost hidden from sight yet provide police with vital on-the-ground intelligence through optic and infrared sensors.

The cost of the current military-grade drones built by Israeli firm Elbit Systems is £32 million each, against £4.3 million for the EC145 helicopter. However, experts said prices would plummet as demand grew for cheaper domestic versions which did not need the same high-grade specifications.

Policing minister Kit Malthouse said: “Our police confront danger to protect us and they deserve the best tools and the best technology. These trials may point to a new and more effective way for the police’s air service to do its vital job: finding missing people and bearing down on crime.”

Captain Ollie Dismore, NPAS director of flight operations, said: “If this technology enables us to fulfil our national remit more efficiently, and either as or more effectively than with our current assets, then it will be considered as part of a future national police air service fleet.”

Richard Gill, who founded Drone Defence after a decade in the Royal Logistics Corps, including with drones in Afghanistan, said: “Its huge advantage is that it is almost completely undetectable. You put it at a high altitude on a fixed area and it can hover and fly virtually silently.

“It means that you can ‘soak’ an area with surveillance for maybe eight or more hours which you could not do with a helicopter. Where the helicopter scores is that it can give a really prominent presence in a situation with night lights so criminals know they are being sought.

“The prices are currently high but will come right down, maybe by a factor of ten, as they start operating within a civilian environment without the need for military-grade specifications.”

The NPAS “squadron” can be used by any of the forces in England and Wales, many of which have bought their own smaller drones which can largely only be flown in the line of sight of the operator.

They have already been used to catch criminals spotted hiding on roof tops, saved a car crash victim from hypothermia after a thermal imaging drone found him in freezing temperatures, and mounted an aerial search for two bodies that could otherwise have cost the taxpayer up to £300,000.

The Hermes 900, which has a wingspan of 49 feet and can carry all the same sensors, cameras, lights and communication equipment as a helicopter, would be the first long-range, out-of-sight drone deployed by the police.

It would also be a “greener” option with its lighter, smaller frame.