Future of crime fighting

Chief Reporter
The Engineer

It’s likely that the Google alerts of libertarians yesterday featured the news that police made an arrest using an aerial drone for the first time in the UK.

The Merseyside Police, which is the only force in the country to operate an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), used a thermal imaging camera on their small, remote-controlled drone to spot a suspected car thief through fog.

The suspect, who reportedly fled the stolen vehicle, was hiding in bushes alongside the Leeds-Liverpool canal, probably completely unaware that plumes of heat emitted from his panting body were being detected by the onboard sensors of the UAV overhead.

Such high-tech aerial surveillance has been traditionally reserved for defence operations in areas such as the Middle East and Afghanistan. The Engineer reported as far back as 2007 that UAV developers – unaware of the slightly creepy nature of their spy technology – were eyeing up areas to deploy drones for civilian use. The now successful reapplication for catching criminals on the streets of the UK is something that can be cheered and possibly feared.

It is reassuring the first arrest using a drone helped nab an alleged car thief and not someone guilty of a far less offence such as dropping a sweet wrapper on the street. Yet there are more than a few ‘Big Brother’ alarmists who believe that is still a real possibility.

A much larger demonstration of this technology is predicted to be at the London 2012 Olympics where it is imagined swarms of these drones will be circling above monitoring security.

Who knows if between now and then this will be a common sight. It’s hard to imagine the success in Merseyside could lead to police forces across the UK proposing camera-carrying drones to replace the CCTV ubiquitous on our streets. Yet it may be that UAVs could be deployed to work in tandem with CCTV picking out areas of interest and alerting officials on the ground to take a closer look and zoom in on a scene with a CCTV camera.

It’s a good thing if this helps solve crimes. An internal report from the Metropolitan Police last year admitted that the millions of CCTV cameras in London’s surveillance network rarely help catch criminals. According to the report, less than 1,000 crimes were solved using cameras in 2008.

Will UAVs actually improve crime solving, or will they turn out to be a complete waste of money and a further invasion of our privacy? What do you think about the future of deployment of UAV surveillance technology in the UK? We welcome your comments.