Police forces all over the UK will soon be able to draw on unmanned aircraft from a national fleet, according to Home Office plans. Last month it was revealed that modified military aircraft drones will carry out surveillance on everyone from protesters and antisocial motorists to fly-tippers, and will be in place in time for the 2012 Olympics.
Surveillance is only the start, however. Military drones quickly moved from reconnaissance to strike, and if the British police follow suit, their drones could be armed — but with non-lethal weapons rather than Hellfire missiles.
The flying robot fleet will range from miniature tactical craft such as the miniature AirRobot being tested by Essex police, to BAE System’s new HERTI drone as flown in Afghanistan. The drones are cheaper than police helicopters — some of which will be retired — and are as wide as 12m in the case of HERTI.
Watching events on the ground without being able to act is frustrating. Targets often got away before an unarmed drone could summon assistance. In fact, in 2000 it was reported that an airborne drone spotted Osama bin Laden but could do nothing but watch him escape. So the RAF has been carrying out missions in Afghanistan with missile-armed Reapers since 2007. From the ground these just look like regular aircraft.
The police have already had a similar experience with CCTV. As well as observing, some of these are now equipped with speakers. Pioneered in Middleborough, the talking CCTV allows an operator to tell off anyone engaging in vandalism, graffiti or littering.