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Drones: Threat or opportunity?

Drones diminish the risk of injury for police officers, while allowing the gathering of huge volumes of information at a relatively low cost. That is why their use will grow in public order instances that require heightened situational awareness, including riots. As drones are quiet, manoeuvrable and remotely controlled, they are ideal for border control and surveillance, and carrying out reconnaissance in counter-terrorism operations.

A common argument against widespread drone use is that the technology jeopardises citizens’ privacy. Yet, in many countries, video footage from drones is covered by existing legislation relating to surveillance (for example, public CCTV) including where and how law enforcement agencies are allowed to capture video or still images.

Before a police force can film or take photos (using drones or otherwise) it must submit an authorisation request – and the higher the risk of collateral intrusion, the more scrutinised it will be. At a football match, people expect their behaviour to be monitored, so the risk of intrusion is low, compared with a public park, for example, where the risk is very high.

Therefore, constructive communication is needed by any organisations that use drones to educate the public around potential collateral intrusion.

As law enforcement agencies look to adopt drones to prevent crime, the technology is going to be increasingly used by perpetrators too. Human and drug traffickers are expected to use drones to stay one step ahead of the authorities. That is why law enforcement agencies and drone suppliers must collaborate more closely.

Arguably, the biggest challenge to drone use today is data storage and analysis. Drones can capture huge amounts of photos and footage. This data must be processed and made available on-demand to identify the perpetrator or a crime, or provide evidence of an offence, as well as for compliance checks and public access. The data must also be in a format that can’t be tampered with to safeguard the chain of evidence.

Organisations could end up wasting huge resources in making sense of data, off setting any expected benefits. This is where agencies need the most help: digesting the data into intelligence that can be easily searched, analysed and cross-referenced with other data.

John Wright is global director for public safety and justice at Unisys and former Prevent counter-terrorism strategy national co-ordinator at the Association of Chief Police Officers

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