Two police forces have become the first in the UK to unveil a fully operational drone unit.
Devon and Cornwall and Dorset police forces have been testing drones in the field since 2015 but have now decided to turn them into fully-fledged units.
The hope is that by taking advantage of their unique abilities they can cut costs and improve their ability to react to certain situations.
Focusing on that first point, cost is a major factor in this decision. A police helicopter can cost as much as £800 per hour to operate whereas a drone costs anywhere between £1,500-£3,000 and has no operational running costs other than the training required for the police officers.
Five officers have been trained, with a further 40 aiming to complete their Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) accreditation in the next 12 months.
There are currently six drones - equipped with a zoom camera and thermal imaging - in operation across the two forces.
The drones take part in missing person searches, crime scene photography and respond to major road traffic collisions.
They also help scour the forces’ 600 miles of coastline, as well as woodlands, and help combat wildlife crime.
Some of the drones feature police livery but do not have flashing blue lights or sirens.
Others have been left blank for covert operations.
Chief Superintendent Jim Nye, commander for the Alliance Operations Department, described the unit as an “historic step” for policing in the UK.
“Drone capability is a cutting-edge way to support operational policing across Devon, Cornwall and Dorset,” Mr Nye said.
“This technology offers a highly cost-effective approach in supporting our officers on the ground in operational policing.”
The unit is currently using DJI Inspire drones, costing approximately £2,000 with the basic camera, and DJI Mavic drones, costing £1,300.
A thermal camera costs about £6,000 and a zoom camera costs £800. Helicopters cost about £800 per hour.
“I think long term, it will be very cost effective to use the drones,” Mr Nye said.
“The helicopter isn’t always available and you want to have it available for life-threatening situations.
“This is not going to be a replacement to police officers, this is going to complement what we do.
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“I think the public would expect that if we can get value for money with a drone over a helicopter, that we do so.”
Drones from the trial have been used to help secure convictions in court cases, with evidence from them being used in jury bundles.
They have also located missing people and taken images of major crime scenes, a spokesman for the alliance said.
There are 19 helicopters providing air support to police forces throughout England and Wales and the NPAS does not operate drones.
Russ Woolford, NPAS drones lead, said: “NPAS supports the use of drones in policing and is committed to achieving their effective, ethical and safe operation as part of the overall capability for policing from the air.”
Drones are limited to a height of 400ft and a distance of 500m away from the operator.
They cannot fly within 50 metres of a person or building without the landowner being informed.
They are also restricted from flying within 150 metres of a congested area, or gatherings of more than 1,000 people.
Police oversee drone use by the public and have issued warnings to five members of the public for breaking rules and regulations.
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