The first 24-hour police drone unit is to be launched in the UK, amid fears that forces may have to rely on them because of falling officer numbers.

The ‘flying squad’ will pursue suspects, find missing people and help solve murders. Assistant Chief Constable Steve Barry, national spokesman on drones, predicted forces across Britain would soon be using them as they are cheaper than helicopters and can perform some duties of bobbies on the beat.

But the move has prompted privacy concerns and warnings that the technology should ‘never be an excuse to cut officers’.

Devon and Cornwall Police has advertised for a drone manager to lead its new dedicated unit, which will be launched in the summer and shared with Dorset.

Sussex and Surrey are considering whether to set up full-time units. For now, officers in other roles operate drones part-time.

In total 21 forces are experimenting with the technology, known as unmanned aerial vehicles, to carry out an array of duties – from everyday search missions to watching over the Duchess of Cambridge on a royal visit and pursuing a lynx that escaped from a zoo.

But there are concerns that the relatively cheap remote-controlled devices could lead to officers being cut in future.

Mr Barry, National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on drones, admitted they may give an opportunity for chiefs to ‘rationalise’ whether it is cheaper and more efficient to send a bobby or a machine.

 

He said of the new unit: ‘I would not be at all surprised if other forces follow in due course – the question is not whether they will, it’s when.’

Asked whether chief constables might be tempted to cut officers if drones prove a success, he said: ‘There may be an opportunity at some point in the future to rationalise what we need our cops to do because we find drones can do it more effectively and more cost-efficiently … an example of that would be looking for missing people.

‘That opportunity has not yet manifested … There will be a point where that question gets asked.’

But he also said: ‘I think it’s a brave senior officer who will make that step that is going to cut cops because they have got drones.’

Mr Barry, who works for Sussex Police, added: ‘If delivering the best service within the budget means using drones for something, a cop is now free to go to that burglary. It’s about freeing resources.’

Devon and Cornwall Police covers the largest force area in England. Its drone fleet will allow it to respond to incidents more quickly as UAVs can be dispatched in a fraction of the time it would take officers to cover that ground.

Dorset police and crime commissioner Martyn Underhill has said drones ‘have the capability to revolutionise the way we police’, adding: ‘There is no reason why [they] can’t become as familiar a sight as patrol cars, a police helicopter or an officer on the beat.’

Chief Superintendent Jim Nye, strategic alliance commander for operations in Devon, Cornwall and Dorset, said drones were going to be a ‘significant piece of kit’. READ MORE