No longer the stuff of science fiction 24-hour CCTV surveillance has become widespread, commonplace and, in large measure, accepted. There is small chance of escaping being caught on camera except in remote rural areas. Britain has become one of the most observed and monitored nations on earth and the cameras now include Police helicopter drones.
The success of the early cameras on major roads and busy junctions led to their deployment in anti-social hotspots, shops and public buildings. The private sector routinely employs cameras for security within and without their premises. Miniature cameras are now hidden in the most unexpected places.
The transfer of both that technology and that watching principle to mobile cameras in the air was a logical next step, with applications in agricultural (crop spraying) environments on the one hand and dealing with explosive devices in war zones on the other.
The Mesa County Sheriff’s office in Colorado claims to be the first to have employed unmanned aerial vehicles for a range of purposes from traffic management to assisting full scale SWAT exercises.
There is now an international association to advance ‘the unmanned systems community’; which shows how far electronic surveillance has come in little more than a decade.
These remotely controlled airborne systems go under many names, including drones, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), but all depend on GPS, neural network technologies and the cost-efficient manufacture of autonomous vehicles capable of speed, versatile movement and silent travel.
The BBC reported in December 2011, that the US Army was developing helicopter-style drones carrying 1.8 gigapixel colour cameras. It was the ability to capture small details from above, sometimes unseen, that appealed to law enforcement agencies as well as military. Drone cameras allow tracking and monitoring of individuals, groups and vehicles on a scale not possible before.
Linked to intelligence data bases and facial recognition systems, police versions of these unmanned helicopters are becoming essential weapons in their arsenal in the endless war against crime and terrorism.
Pilotless drones can vertically take-off, hover or give chase providing continuous, real-time video evidence streams to support police activity over wide ground areas. Far cheaper to buy and operate than conventional police choppers, these miniature robots are set to become part of the urban skylines of the future.
Police in Arlington, Texas put into service (Nov 2011) a pair of battery-powered 11-pound, 4-feet helicopter drones, at a cost of $200,000 to record video and take photos. Other forces are catching up and so are border agencies, rescue centres, news media organisations, utility companies – in fact, anybody wanting fast, accurate, birds-eye view information from situations or disasters that are too hostile or impracticable to reach quickly.
Armed forces are continuing to develop the technology to improve particularly night vision and to give the drones ever more equipment and wider windows of unimpeded 360 degree vision, compatible with the need to fly fast and light.
Drones will become capable of picking up and delivering small payloads, such as medical supplies or defensive weapons. They will inevitably increase in size.
The privacy issue is still live. People worry that unfettered police drones will become ubiquitous and ever-more invasive. As they multiply, potential collisions with other airborne craft, especially near airports, become likely and if any fail and drop from the sky, damage to people and property would be extensive.
However, those concerns seem unlikely to slow technological advances, and enthusiasm among the beneficiaries of the systems, including the police, remains high and will carry a lot of weight with lawmakers. Some sort of air traffic control system may become necessary, but they are here to stay.