Pilotless planes used to track the Taliban could soon be hovering over our streets, it has emerged.
Remote-controlled drones are already used widely by the military. Now ministers believe they are likely to become ‘increasingly useful’ for police work.
Armed with heat-seeking cameras, the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles would hover hundreds of feet in the air, gathering intelligence and watching suspects.
In theory, their advantages are clear. They are cheaper and quieter than conventional helicopters, can circle their target for hours without refuelling – and they don’t get bored on long surveillance missions.
However, their use is likely to further fuel concerns about our march towards a Big Brother state. Britain already has more CCTV cameras than the rest of Europe put together.
More than four million closed-circuit TV cameras cover the streets; cars are monitored using cameras that check registration plates and a new law will see footage taken of shoppers buying alcohol.
The plan to deploy ‘spy in the sky’ planes is outlined in the Home Office’s latest Science and Innovation Strategy. It says: ‘Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are likely to be an increasingly useful tool for police in the future, potentially reducing the number of dangerous situations the police may have to enter and also providing evidence for prosecutions and support police operations in “real time”.’
Two years ago, Tony McNulty, then a Home Office minister, acknowledged that scientists were exploring the use of UAV technology for a ‘range of policing and security applications’.
They could be used by MI5 to watch a suspect’s address for long periods or track a car for miles.
The drones could also help officers plan raids in locations that are hard to reach, to record and monitor accidents or to spot speeding offences or reckless or uninsured drivers.
Ministers are liaising with the Civil Aviation Authority about the introduction of UAVs, some of which measure as little as 2ft across.
But the document cautions: ‘We need to investigate how such vehicles could be used, and their ability to provide high-quality evidence for convictions.’
There are also safety concerns surrounding the planes. Those used by the military are prone to crashes on takeoff and landing. Many have been lost over battlefields.
A trial by Merseyside police, of £30,000 remote-controlled miniature helicopters with still, video or infra-red cameras, highlighted more mundane problems related to battery life and the effects of bad weather on flights.
Mark Wallace, of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, said: ‘I think a lot of people would be concerned at the Home Office looking to use technology more generally associated with the tribal borders of Pakistan and the fight against terror over British towns to watch the British public.
‘It is not necessarily as glamorous or as high-tech, but a bobby snapping cuffs on a criminal is the most productive approach.’