Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a Drone

uav5_finalUnmanned Aircraft Systems or ‘Drones’ will soon present new opportunities for policing in Ireland writes John O’Keeffe.


MODERN POLICING: The Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) or ‘Drones’ industry has expanded considerably over the past number of years and what was once a technology reserved largely for the military is now finding new roles in civilian applications including policing and emergency services.

Unmanned surveillance Drones will now work alongside an 8,000-strong police force in guarding key sites in Northern Ireland during this June’s G8 summit, and last month an Ennis councillor suggested that unmanned Drones be flown over Ennis as part of a pilot programme aimed at tackling crime.

Notwithstanding privacy and other concerns, gardaí may now need to prepare for a day soon when a Drone in the sky may be as much a part of a high speed car chase on the M7 as an unmarked high-speed garda car.

It is the ease of use in these islands, that is attracting both civilian and security interest. Drones can be flown under low-cloud base as well as typical windy weather conditions found in this country. Multi-rotor craft are compact and can be transported to the site of interest in the back of a car and are capable of taking-off in seconds from very confined spaces. Various payload sensors can also be fitted including visible, near infra-red as well as thermal imaging sensors, enabling a wide range of rapid monitoring and mapping capabilities for more effective policing.

“Drones are now being created which are “the size of hummingbirds” capable of advanced thermal and infra-red imaging. Such devices can see through walls and even have facial recognition technology capability”

The recent search for the Boston bombers ignited the global debate once more with regard to the use of Drones in policing work. Boston Police Chief Edward F. Davis even said he wants to use Drones at next year’s Boston marathon, calling them “a good idea.”

However, it is the very appeal of the capabilities offered by this technology that has caused disquiet amongst certain groups, not least in Ireland. The length of time these Drones can stay airborne, along with their undoubted ability to mount general surveillance of the population at any given time, could raise serious privacy concerns argue civil liberties groups. While using a Drone to pursue fleeing suspects like the Boston bombers might be legal under both state and federal law there, pre-emptively hovering drones over an event raises civil libertarian hackles – even in the U.S.

A Drone hovering over Croke Park or the Aviva on match day might however present altogether more complex issues of personal infringement.

Drones comprise three core modules; the Un-manned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or ‘Drone’ which can be either a rotary or fixed-wing platform, communication links handling navigation and sensor data, and finally the ground control station used by the UAV pilot to oversee the flight-sortie. Over 195 organisations (including three separate police forces) have been granted permission to fly and operate UAS in the UK, whilst eight permissions have been granted here in the Republic of Ireland.

Modern Drones now also possess integrated navigation systems and can be operated manually or indeed totally autonomously from take-off. Somewhat disappointingly perhaps, these aerial platforms have little or no ‘sense and avoid’ capability – perhaps Drones can’t do everything yet after all.

policedrone4For the general population too, Drones are now affordable and personnel can be trained to operate these platforms in a relatively short time. Indeed a basic manufacturers course can be completed in a few days and Ringaskiddy in Co Cork, now hosts the first Drone-operating training course in Ireland. The Irish Aviation Authority has licensed a Cork-based company to launch unmanned aircraft and train people how to operate the devices. SkyTec UAS Ireland, a research company based at the National Maritime College of Ireland, hopes to start training people to operate the drones by the end of July of this year.

uav7Privacy campaigners continue to have serious concerns about the proliferation of Drone technology since these platforms can be purchased relatively cheaply and be flown by anyone as long as they complete the short training course and pass the requisite IAA exam. As reported recently in the Irish Times, Drones are now being created which are “the size of hummingbirds” capable of advanced thermal and infra-red imaging. Such devices can see through walls and even have facial recognition technology capability.

uav8_finalThe garda community will however be obliged to operate these Drones in a way that, of course, wholly compliments the law under strict guidelines and training. Notwithstanding legitimate concerns surrounding legal problems, it seems that when it comes to modern policing, criminals may now need to gaze skywards, before they look over their shoulders.

So next time you look up, keep an eye out for the ‘Drone” – it could well be the next big thing for modern policing in this country.

John O’Keeffe is a Criminologist at City Colleges and Trinity College, Dublin. Garda Review would like to thank Dr. Tim McCarthy, University Researcher at NUI Maynooth, for his assistance in the preparation of this article.

For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.

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