Are police drones just toys for the boys?



This article is by Michael Salter, lecturer in criminology at the University of Western Sydney. It originally appeared on The Conversation.

analysis Before the election, Tony Abbott reaffirmed the Coalition’s commitment to purchasing unmanned “drone” aircraft for military use, but he emphasised the need to review their efficacy and cost-effectiveness.

While the Australian military contemplates entering the drone age, Australian police forces are already committed to taking that step. The South Australian police have announced plans to purchase four “quadcopters” – miniature aircraft lifted and propelled by four rotors. Police in other states are seeking public funds to buy their own drones. The Queensland Police Minister Jack Dempsey says drones are “invaluable” tools for policing.

The use of drones overseas, in the military or for border patrol, has been the subject of international controversy. But police use of drones has gone largely unremarked in Australia despite their implications for privacy and civil liberties. Meanwhile it is still unclear exactly how drones will improve law enforcement efforts.

Australian police say drones will help foil terrorist plots, infiltrate bikie fortresses, and find survivors in flaming towers. The international experience suggests otherwise.

In the United States, where around 20 police forces have approval to use drones, the majority have never deployed them in the field. They cite legal uncertainties, the high ongoing costs of drones and their apparently limited usefulness for day-to-day policing. Drones were used in Britain for more than two years before resulting in a single arrest.

In 2010, UK police used a drone mounted with thermal-imaging technology to find a teenage car thief hiding behind bushes in thick fog. The drone was almost immediately grounded for breaching legislation regarding unmanned aircraft in inhabited areas.

After police obtained the necessary license, officers took the £13,000 drone to the local police social club where it was launched only to crash and sink into a river.

Drones are notoriously difficult to pilot. In 2009, the American Air Force reported that one third of their Predator drones deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan had crashed. The high rate of drone accidents raises obvious questions about the potential risks associated with police use. In 2012, a Texas paramilitary police unit staged a photo opportunity for the local media to photograph a drone in action. Minutes after launching the US$300,000 Shadowhawk helicopter there was a communication failure and the drone crashed into a police vehicle.

Rather than being based on fact, the dramatic claims of Australian police about the crime-fighting powers of drones appear to parrot the marketing material of weapons manufacturers and military industry groups. As Western countries withdraw forces from the Middle East, the weapons industry is directly advertising drones to police agencies to find new revenue streams.

They have employed lobbyists who make wild claims about the inexpensiveness, safety and usefulness of drones for law enforcement. But independent cost benefit analyses find that manned aircraft are more effective than drones for policing. The unimpressive results of police drones come at a high financial cost.

Drones are cheaper per unit than piloted aircraft but their operational costs are substantially higher, due to the ongoing expenses of pilot training, licensing and operation. Operating a drone may cost as much or more than a manned aircraft.

Police fascination with drones, despite their limitations, is part of a longstanding trend towards the militarisation of policing in Australia and overseas. Since the mass media became saturated with heroic images of the warrior cop in the 1980s, police have exhibited a strong attraction to military fashion, tactics and hardware.

They describe military training and weaponry as thrilling and exciting, in contrast to the more mundane realities of police life. This excitement comes at a high cost. Military trained police and units have shown a preference for force that erodes community trust and has resulted in unnecessary injury and even death to officers, suspects and bystanders.

The potential harms of military ordinance in the hands of police officers are well known. Police have sought to distance drones from their origins in the military-industrial complex, likening them to existing police aerial resources such as helicopters. After all, drones have proven very useful in disaster responses, such as in the aftermath of the Fukishima nuclear plant disaster, or in monitoring fires or floods.

But it is becoming clear that police interest in drones is due, at least in part, to their weaponised potential. American police agencies are openly speculating that they may equip drones with “bean bag” guns, tear gas canisters and rubber bullets.

Military manufacturers have developed weaponised drones for domestic application and are marketing these “assassin bugs” to police agencies and governments. The use of drones in military action overseas has sparked concern that drones undermine democracy because they make going to war too easy. But we are so used to the “war on crime” and the “war on terror” at home that the political and ethical implications of policing drones are passing us by.

Military tactics and hardware can make policing more appealing to recruits and generate impressive media spectacles, but they do not prevent or solve crime. The underlying causes of social disorder go unaddressed while public funds are spent instead on expensive but ineffective and potentially dangerous toys.

Michael Salter does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations. Read the original article.

The Conversation


  1. But clearly you’re a terrorist/paedophile/drug dealer/criminal for suggesting that our great and honorable police forces may not have the best interests of the public at heart. The police are above corruption and petty personal interests – they are the selfless protectors of the good people from evil, nasty criminal elements. Just look at the distribution of Man hours, charges and arrests – obviously we all need to be protected by the majority of the police force patrolling the streets, keeping dangerous hoons from doing 1 to 19km/hr above the posted speed limit. Imagine how many convictions could be achieved with the flexibility and response provided by a network of traffic surveillance drones photographing and processing infringements as they happen wherever they’re most needed? So many possibilities… {/sarcasm}

  2. This comment/rant is more about hobby use than police use.

    These are more useful for firefighters and SES than the police. You can see what a fire is doing or inspect a vehicle hanging from a bridge, safely compared to sending a person in.
    As a hobbyist of both rc planes and multicopters (see article picture), I believe it is reasonably easy for these craft to be used safely. Some flight control boards (mini computer/brain found on all multis and optional for planes) can be configured to use a gps signal to either circle on loss of signal or return to the take-off location. These can also use point mapping so they would follow the flight path back reducing the chance of flying into a mountain. Other sensors could be included but are not normally in hobbyist aircraft. One of the better options out there for this is uthere ruby lots of details on their website, I haven’t used but I have looked at it

    All the other RC pilots I talk to (in a global forum) who fly using the onboard camera’s video (called first person video or FPV), do so to see the beautiful scenery or for the thrill of piloting without the major expenses. None are interested in weaponizing their craft, if they did they would be reported to authorities by the other members.

    • A camera can be a very effective weapon – it is just used differently. Footage of pretty scenery many be harmless; footage of an abattoir shut down our live export trade.

      • I saw that on the abc and I disagree with that flight. I have only flown with the land owners permission or in public land away from people. With that said, a ladder and a telephoto lens would be comparable, or a telephoto lens and the multicopter kept above the public land. (and below 300 feet by law)

        • My disagreement is moral about trespass I make no judgement about the filming of free range chicken farms or abattoirs.

  3. The US Army have a significantly better record than the US Airforce in drone operations because they permit the automated systems to have more control. Drone safety should improve as the software behind the control systems improve.

  4. The technology obviously has potential for policing, however it would be the software that drives the systems which would require real development and investment.

  5. This article confuses multicoptor drones with military unmanned aircraft and cross argues between the two cases. These sorts of aircraft are not equivalent neither are the environments they operate in. One third of unmanned fixed wing aircraft crashing in a hostile military environment (and over a long period whilst the technology is improving) has no bearing on the SA Police force’s purchase of quad copters.

Comments are closed.