Eyes in the sky: rise of police drones in Tyrone

Police drone
Police drone

Controversial surveillance drones are quickly becoming a part of police work in District F, which includes the Dungannon and Cookstown districts, with 32 confirmed deployments of the aerial vehicles since June 2013, the highest level in Northern Ireland.

Drones, also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), resemble large model aircraft with state of the art cameras used to relay information to police officers on the ground during operations. Some models are capable of intercepting communications and accessing electronic data protected by encryption or passwords.

In total, police have deployed drones on 114 occasions across Northern Ireland since June 2013.

Police have refused to release any information on how or if drones are used in covert surveillance operations, citing national security concerns.

However, they have confirmed that the drones have been used in bomb alerts and in nine search operations.

The PSNI first purchased drones in June 2013 ahead of the G8 summit in Fermanagh when the leaders of eight of the world’s richest countries met at the Lough Erne Golf Resort.

June 2013 had the highest number of drone flights in a single month to date, with 26 deployments made in Police District F.

A further six drones have been launched since in the local area.

County Armagh had the next highest level of drone use with 26 operations, followed by Belfast City at 22.

There have been no drone flights to date in Police districts C and H, which encompass Counties Antrim and Down.

TΤhe PSNI also said that at present it did not record any information on the cost of each individual deployment and that the cost of each drone was deemed ‘commercial-in-confidence’.

However the police did confirm that the overall cost of the project was £1.5 million.

PSNI Detective Chief Superintendent Hugh Hume said: “The increase in the number of deployments does not reflect an operational reliance on Unmanned Aerial Systems.

“An initial licence to operate the systems was granted solely to assist with the G8 policing operation in June 2013. No further deployments took place until November 2013 when a final licence to operate was granted.

“The increase in the number of deployments is attributable to this unlicensed period when the systems did not fly. The PSNI always try to keep the community safe and if UAS can be deployed to assist with this it will be deployed. Future deployment will be determined by a variety of factors.”