Could Drones revolutionise the Emergency Services?

Over 160,000 innovators and gadget geeks are flocking to Vegas for the four-day 2015 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), show which takes place 6 – 9 January.  CES is the largest consumer electronics and consumer technology tradeshow in the world and thousands of manufacturers will be flocking to show off their new tech.  Sharing centre stage with the next generation of TVs, phablets and the wearable technology, drones are taking the place by storm.  The technology is generating a real buzz with enthusiasts CES have more than 100 types of drones on display at their event.

However, December wasn’t a great month for drones. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) recently confirmed an unidentified drone came close to hitting a plane coming into land at Heathrow last July. The CAA didn’t identify the airline or say how close the drone came to the plane, but gave the incident an ‘A’ rating (the highest possible), meaning a ‘serious risk of collision’. TGI Fridays’ ‘mobile mistletoe drone’ also made the news as it left a woman missing a piece of her nose in Sheepshead Bay, N.Y. The idea was supposed to be fun, attaching mistletoe and a camera to a drone, flying it over people’s heads, encouraging customers to participate a ‘festive kiss cam’. However, the drone they chose was designed for use indoors didn’t have a guard covering the blades.

Drones have come a long way, pardon the pun.  A few years ago the technology was pretty basic but today drones, or Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) as they are known, are rapidly becoming the must-have gadget. There’s no doubt that drones bring a whole new perspective on digital mobility and surveillance and that they have a role augmenting other air support capabilities.  Already there are plenty of commercial companies exploiting this new capability in areas such as movie making, mapping, agriculture monitoring, stock control of large sites, oil pipeline inspection and even Amazon deliveries have been muted. The speed of evolution of this technology is huge and scenarios which seem fanciful today will become a reality in the blink of a camera shutter.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), who regulate the commercial use of drones, are very clear about how they should be operated by commercial operators, they will issue an Operating Permit and ensure training is adequate so as not to endanger the safety of the public. Whilst the law is clear about not endangering aircraft it’s less clear when it comes to the use of small, freely available, relatively low weight drones which are becoming popular.  Perhaps the time is right for a review of the law in this area maybe prohibiting their use in certain locations or buildings and in certain circumstances and even allowing exclusion areas to be established if needed before it’s too late.

So can the Emergency Services jump on this technology-band wagon? Before diving into the police use of drones there’s the important issues of human rights, privacy and ethics. This tends to revolve around whether drones are covert or overt, but for some, their use is simply unacceptable. If drones were solely marketed in a positive way, focussing on how they can protect the public and save lives, then would we, the general public accept them even if our privacy is impacted?

I believe before the police and others fully move into this space there needs to be a public debate about how acceptable drones are in the hands of the Emergency Services. Clearly, Fire and Ambulance usage is less controversial than law enforcement but privacy intrusion can be similar.  An example of drones in the medical field is ‘Ambulance drone,’ developed by a student at a Dutch university, the flying defibrillator can respond within minutes after a heart attack sets in.  On one hand it could be argued that the law enforcement agencies already conduct aerial surveillance using helicopters and fixed wing aircraft and so why are drones any different?  This usually revolves around whether drones are covertly or overtly used.  A small fixed wing drone, painted grey, operated at a considerable height with an electric motor and GPS technology can become almost covert in certain circumstances and thereby represents a threat to privacy.  Add to this the use of drones by the paparazzi or news media not to mention terrorists then it’s not surprising they are becoming a controversial development and attracting political interest.

For the Police there’s an obvious use for surveillance and command and control. Over a short range (CAA rules require a constant ‘line of sight’ between the operator and the device), the ability to look over a building if a siege situation is in progress, the provision of streamed HD video or HD stills back to a command vehicle, officers on foot or a nearby control room represents a real operational advantage. The ability to quickly deploy a drone from a vehicle to check remote or difficult terrain for missing or injured people, vehicles, or fleeing criminals or weapons are all advantageous.  For Fire and Rescue teams effective incident management is crucial. The possibilities are huge – aerial observation of fires with infrared cameras, identifying the seats of fires, building collapses, injured victims, tracking fire fighter’s movements as they clear buildings, dealing with large scale chemical incidents where ‘standoff’ distances are large, cliff rescues, water rescues (…I could go on) all represent viable scenarios. For Ambulance the location of victims at remote road traffic collisions where occupants are missing from vehicles having wandered off injured and maybe collapsed in a nearby field or made it home at night is a serious issue. Large scale disasters such train crashes which can occur in remote areas with casualties spread over a large area all have the potential for drone use.

Before I retired from Lancashire Police, I was the Chairman of the UAS Steering Group, which contained representatives from the police, military, CAA, Air Accident Investigation Branch, National Police Air Service and a few other folk from other agencies. We attempted to co-ordinate the police use of drones as some forces were heading off in some interesting directions making ad-hoc purchases but were in danger of upsetting the regulators and spending lots of public money.

I read Heliguy’s blog on ‘THE FUTURE IS FIREFIGHTING WITH DRONES’ with great interest.  The technology is clearly here. But as thousands of us received drones as Christmas presents this year, and as the near-miss with an airliner shows, the authorities now face a battle to stop them being used irresponsibly and unethically.

About Chris Weigh: Chris has spent 30 years in one of the UK’s largest police forces where he gained experience in a wide variety of operational roles. He spent over 6 years as a Chief Officer with national responsibility for specific criminal justice policies and was the chairman of the NW England Emergency Services Interoperability Programme and the lead for police collaboration.  He retired from the police as the Deputy Chief Constable having been awarded the Queens Police Medal for distinguished service and is now engaged as a senior adviser to the Government of the United Arab Emirates where he is developing policy and procedure for policing, civil emergencies and justice. He sits in a judicial capacity for the General Medical Council and is an Advisor to Telefonica UK.