SA Police buys drone fleet


news The South Australian police force has gone to market to buy a fleet of aerial drones to assist it with surveillance operations, as controversy continues to swirl around the use of the technology in Australia’s skies and whether it endangers residents and/or invades their privacy.

The drone initiative was unveiled by South Australian Police Minister Michael O’Brien in late June this year. At the time, O’Brien said the so-called ‘unmanned aerial vehicles’ represented a “cost-effective solution for a range of policing operations”, giving police a “significant advantage during incidents and operations”, especially in situations where convential aircraft such as helicopters could not be used. SA Police was expected to buy four standard quadcopters to assist with its operations, at a total cost of around $200,000.

This week the tender documents for the drone operation were published through the tendering system of the South Australian Government. The documents reveal that the police force requires drones capable of providing “overt tactical and search and rescue capability”, as well as “covert capability to assist in investigations”, during both day and night, in moderate weather and environmental condictions.

SA Police wants the drones to be delivered qiuckly — no later than 20 December this year. They will be deployed from the rear of a standard SA Police vehicle and will need to become operational in less than 30 minutes. Their capabilities are described as “self-sufficient” and they will need to operate in both the metropolitan Adelaide and rural areas of South Australia.

The drones will have a minimum effective flight range of one kilometre, and will include both a return to base capability if the transmission signal is lost between the drone and their operators, as well as an included GPS signal so that the drones can be tracked if they are lost or stolen.

Critical to the operation of the drones will be their sophisticated camera capabilities. Minister O’Brien said that the devices would feature still, video and infra-red cameras, and the tender documentation released this week makes clear that GPS information should be overlaid with the photography.

“The camera system for the RPAS must be of a high quality and should overlay images with Global Positioning System (GPS) points. The images/footage must be of a standard sufficient to be utilised as evidence. This overlay can be done at the base station but will require on-board recording ability to retain the original footage,” states the tender documentation.

“The footage must have a simple file format usable on the existing Windows based SAPOL and Court computer systems. Both cameras should have the ability to provide footage in day and night time akin to a Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) system. The transmission must be capable of providing vision that enables viewers to obtain “situational awareness”.”

The South Australian police force is not the only law enforcement agency in Australia to have commenced operating a drone fleet for surveillance and covert operations.

In March, for instance, it was reported that Queensland’s police force had plans to launch a drone fleet to deal with drug crop identification, traffic operations and even to deal with natural disasters, following a successful trial of the technology in 2012. At that stage Queensland Police Minister Jack Dempsey highlighted the possibility of buying surplus military-grade drones for mass-scale surveillance.

The news comes as controversy continues to swirl around the use of drones in various applications in Australia.

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority, for instance, is cracking down on the personal use of the technology. Last week it issued a strongly worded statement warning the operators of small remotely piloted drones which have produced amazing footage of bushfires in the Blue Mountains that they are putting fire fighting operations at risk and should be aware of appropriate regulations.

Separately, academics such as Michael Salter, a lecturer in criminology at the University of Western Sydney, have warned that the use of drones may not actually aid in policing efforts. “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,” wrote Salter in late September.

“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.”

And civil liberties groups have warned that police shouldn’t be given drone powers without an extensive debate about the merits of the technology and privacy concerns.

Image credit: Steve Lodefink, Creative Commons


  1. Regardless of many, many of the minor points raised, this is a good thing as police are always in the public eye and performing their duties for the public good (with the notable exception of traffic operations aka speed cameras). Adding advanced technology to their capabilities for search and on-station operations is an admirable move by the purse holders.

    • I’m not sure how police always being in the public eye and performing duties for the public good means that they should spend lots of money on surveillance. Surveillance is a political issue, not one that should be experimented with by law enforcement officers, in my opinion.

      Regardless, civil liberties being ignored and mass-scale surveillance are not minor points. Public debate and consultation with South Australian residents needs to happen before any money is spent.

  2. The innocent have nothing to hide :)
    But they could be useful in lots of situations where a helicopter would be overkill or unavailable; traffic monitoring (potentially they will become flying speed cameras), major events… actually thats all I can think of!
    Not thrilled with them being used for surveliance without a warrant, I assume the evidence obtained would require a warrant to be admissible in court? Anyone know; Renai?

  3. “The innocent have nothing to hide”
    Famous last words of the terminally stupid…..

    So lets all just leave a welcome sign on our doors and allow a complete and thorough daily police inspection of our house that way all us people with nothing to hide except perhaps the skidmarks on our underpants can get a delusional sense of security and safety because who needs privacy and freedom. That’s for COMMUNISTS!!!!!! INNIT!!!! Only evil communists and evil anarchists want privacy and freedom to commit their evil deeds in privacy and secret AND WE MUST CASTCH THEM AND LOCK THEM UP IN ORDER TO BE SAFE!!!!! Anyone who disagrees should be locked up for civil disobedience.
    Now I will go ahead and say for the terminally stupid that yes my rant was in a tone of sarcasm.

  4. I love this stuff … I just wish I could throw in my career and set up a drone flying business … (sigh) … takes me back to my days flying model airplanes as a kid. Its the way of the future … as battery technology improves they will be able to fly longer … maybe even forever with solar panels? just need to work on a silent stealth drone and then a network of drones like a physical version of the cellular phone network covering the whole country 24×7 … sending data up to the Googleplex. Of course, they would all be ‘flown’ by computers … so maybe it would actually be a bit boring.

    There will be an alternate market in ‘anti-drone drones’ … so if you are going to commit a crime the first step will be to capture or kill the police drones so that that loose their eyes … or maybe walk around holding a clever urban patter camouflage net over your head so as to be invisible. Hah … a new business … the “Invisdrone cloak” TM. (remember, you heard it here first).

  5. Just waiting for the first time one of these takes out some poor bastard in an unmanned assassination… most likely some retired pensioner on his dream grey nomad Harley in Fuehrerland… should keep the shock jocks and commercial ‘current affairs’ clowns in high blood pressure mode for, ooh, a few days?

  6. Well I don’t suppose the SA Police are planning to put weapons on them. I think they would be great for finding lost kids, elders or bushwalkers.

  7. As an ex SAPOL officer, I’ll say a little known fact is that SAPOL also monitors and spies on their own officers. A warrant is not required since it’s an internal investigation and no magistrate is involved.
    The SAPOL traffic car called ANPR has GPS in it so every metre it is driven can be monitored. The surveillance bus is also used to spy on police officers on and off duty.
    The drones could also be used to carry out surveillance over the homes of POI’S – persons of interests.

    • Hi SS, ANPR is about reading and checking number plates. Are all SAPOL cars being centrally tracked with GPS? Why is this not public knowledge?

  8. Has anyone managed to review or examine the tender document? There is no mention of the tender at the SA Gov tender portal and my on-line searches have turned up nothing. Has it been released and closed/awarded? or did nothing come of the tender in the end? As someone who is used to crawling through tenders for BD and sales intelligence, the tender does not appear to exist. Can someone confirm or deny ? Cheers!

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