Exploring the Implications of Drones for Policing

Mike Coliandris

A number of police forces have adopted and deployed drones for several years, and the opportunities afforded by this innovation for policing are potentially vast. Most uses take advantage of the technology’s capacity as an aerial, remotely piloted platform to which data-gathering equipment can be attached. Its applications in evidence gathering, surveillance, operational planning, and search-and-rescue are well established. Beyond policing, drones promise a great deal – the technology is predicted to add £42 billion to GDP by 2030 and create upwards of 600,000 jobs. Alongside these benefits come risks, though, as this technology becomes increasingly accessible and as it evolves following innovations in allied technologies, such as cameras and on-board batteries. Media attention paid to the Gatwick Airport shutdown in December 2018, for example, demonstrates the disruptive effects of drones on civil airspace, which has led to tighter regulation and counter drone strategies. As part of ESRC-funded PhD research I have been observing a drone-using police unit in order to contextualise drones within this complex landscape. On one level it investigates how (within this case study) drones are used, for what purposes and under what circumstances, training and qualifications. On another level, and looking beyond the immediate case study context, it explores the practical and strategic implications of drones, as policing engages with this emerging technology. This post reflects upon ongoing data analysis regarding what is termed the shaping effects between drones and policing. This shaping effect refers to the influences of social context, such as police culture and organisational practices, upon the uses of drones and how drone use may also come to influence policing.

The case study exists within a fragmented national picture of police drone use, however. Some forces maintain dedicated 24/7 units whereas others do not use them at all or share a capability with a neighbouring force. Even the equipment used varies by force – different manufacturers, technical specifications (e.g. on-board cameras or flight time), capabilities (e.g. operating conditions such as weather), etc. This has led to a degree of localism amongst drone-using forces – an issue highlighted in a HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services report which suggested that forces were making ‘procurement decisions without expert guidance, although some forces had obtained information and advice from the NPCC lead for drones and from the Home Office Centre for Applied Science and Technology’. In terms of practice, this localism has the potential to both enable and constrain. Differences between forces, from resources available to invest in technologies to local crime problems and even geographic and weather conditions, make the establishment of a ‘one-size-fits all’ approach challenging. Local drone programmes therefore reflect local needs. On the other hand, this fragmentary picture could disrupt continuity and collaborations between forces, as each develops its own particular knowledge about ‘what works’ within their locality.

The case study unit which I have been researching uses drones primarily as a ‘tactical option’ alongside other technologies such as vehicles and Taser. In turn, drones are perceived as another tool in the toolbox, effective in some operational circumstances and not in others. As previously indicated, these circumstances usually benefit from an aerial/visual perspective enabled by a flying drone. The analysis of these deployments revolves around isolating, in-thought, some of the core features of what constitutes a drone as distinct from other technologies and its subsequent implications for police practices. In some respects, a drone bears similarity to other data-gathering tools such as body-worn cameras and static CCTV cameras. Yet in other respects this technology departs in unique ways. Analysis highlights in particular the extending capability of a flying drone for an operator on the ground to gather real-time visual information over vast areas. This can be less resource intensive than conventional tactics of searches on foot and more expedient (especially in time-critical cases). Compared against other data-gathering tools (particularly static CCTV cameras), drones enable a very different type of police response which is flexible, mobile, and vertical. Applying this conceptualisation to a variety of operational deployments, such as a search for a missing person or operational planning, demonstrates the incidents which drone technology is most appropriate to, and how drones offer significant augmentations to the capabilities of officers.

On the shaping effects of the social context of police drone use it is important to clarify that drones are a relatively recent addition to forces across England and Wales. When viewed as ‘another tool in the toolbox’, it is interesting to consider how pre-existing practices and occupational cultures influence both the development of drone programmes within forces and their subsequent uses. The policing studies literature illustrates the experiential craft of policing as informing decision-making, performance of organisational tasks, and internal organisational relationships. It also highlights certain cultural aspects which broadly describe the occupational reality of ‘the job’ as generating meaning for practitioners. When these sociological dimensions of policing come into contact with a technological innovation, it is necessary to consider the nature of their influence. Questions addressed throughout my research have included, ‘How does the sense of mission influence the types of incidents that drones are deployed to?’ and ‘To what extent do drones reflect the orientation toward action?’. In turn, methods capable of navigating the social context of innovation enable insights into how technologies come to be inscribed with the meanings held by their users.

Referring back to this post’s introductory claims to the proliferation of drone technology, a related component to the research is the place of the case study within this drone enabled environment. To take the argument that drones shape police practices further than their immediate uses in operational circumstances, drones can also be understood as changing what is to be policed. Therefore, another transformative potential of drones upon policing is through drone enabled crime – recently publicised episodes demonstrate that the criminal or hostile potentials of drones are evidently vast. Changes to regulations in UK civil airspace, such as registration of users and extensions to restricted airspace, and investment in counter drone technologies illustrate the pervasive harms in a drone environment. Managing these risks will therefore be of strategic concern and shape the practices of policing, as officers enforce new regulations and confront episodes of drone-enabled crime. The form these episodes take may not be so straightforwardly anticipated or planned for. Proposals to extend police powers in this area are indicative of the influence drones will continue to have on policing, and the steps being taken to prepare police for an uncertain drone-enabled crime landscape.

In summary, drone technology offers both risk and reward. The police role in this emerging landscape is one which simultaneously shapes it and is shaped by it. Local police drone programmes and the (fortunately, relatively infrequent) episodes of drone-enabled crime and misuse are important sites for researching the diverse implications of drones as they proliferate throughout many aspects of social and economic life.

Mike Coliandris is a PhD student in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University. Email: coliandrism@cardiff.ac.uk.

This work was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council [grant number ES/P00069X/1].






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