As a concept, drones are nothing new. Defined simply as a “remote controlled pilotless aircraft or missile,” drones have been used for long distance surveillance in war zones and other areas of conflict around the world for years. The technology itself has a wide range of applications—online retail giant Amazon is even experimenting with a drone product delivery program that they want to roll out across the country over the next few years.

Drones and the Western Australia (WA) Police Air Wing

A recent report obtained by “The Weekend West” under a Freedom of Information request reveals that the WA Police Air Wing is gearing up for a two-year test, during which drones will take to the skies in a bold new way. Officials want to use the technology to do everything from spy on criminals to assist with land and sea searches. If the program is successful, the widespread adoption of the technology will also be used in things like assessing potential bomb threats.

It appears that this was not a decision that was made lightly, either. While many of the financial details in the report were redacted for the purposes of privacy and security, it was revealed that the total estimated cost of running a drone is only about $0.70 per hour. This is a significant decrease from the hundreds of dollars per hour in fuel costs alone that would be required for the use of a helicopter in similar situations.

It was also revealed that the exact model of drone that will be deployed has not yet been decided, though proposals are already being looked at. One model in particular has been used successfully by the British military during the “War on Terror.” Another model police officials are considering is one popular with both commercial and hobby drone operators. The logic here is that by co-opting the use of consumer-level drones that are already in the skies, it would allow law enforcement to essentially “hide in plain sight” during surveillance operations.

The report also indicated that a 2015 incident in Bunbury (Western Australia) acted as the basis for such a dramatic technological shift. During the now-infamous event, a Bunbury man held one of his coworkers hostage for 12 hours and claimed to have explosives in the area. Department officials argued that if they had access to a drone at that time, the entire operation would have enjoyed a much greater degree of flexibility. They could have maneuvered a drone into the area and obtained real-time and detailed information about the situation as it was taking place, giving the command post much more accurate and actionable information to work with.

The Benefits of Drones in Policing

Using drones for these types of situations brings a number of unique benefits to the table for WA law enforcement in particular. For starters, research indicates that drones will be much cheaper to operate than helicopters or planes and are actually more effective in many of the same situations. This is particularly true during activities where safety is a top priority, or when surveillance needs to be as covert as possible.

Because drones are also lightweight and compact, they can fly significantly lower than conventional aircraft. When outfitted with Go Pros or other smaller portable cameras, they can also stream live HD video directly to a computer or smartphone. This not only increases the effectiveness of surveillance programs, but also dramatically reduces the response time required for certain events.

Drones can also carry thermal imaging cameras or other specialized pieces of equipment that would become essential during a search-and-rescue operation conducted at night, where every second counts. The only major downside is that because drones are so compact, they are heavily affected by weather conditions. Covering large areas with a single drone also often proves to be problematic.

Recent studies also revealed that WA police were “far behind” other law enforcement agencies regarding its overall use of technology—something the drone program would help to address, finally brining the department firmly into the 21st century where it belongs.