Policing from above
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A vulnerable child has gone missing close to acres of rural land, some of which is flooded. The officers know as each hour goes by the chances of finding him safe and well reduces. They also know to search an area of that size would take around 20 people at least a couple of hours - time that child might not have.
This situation is just one of the many incidents PC Matt Burton and his colleagues in the Leicestershire Police drone team are on hand to assist with.
Once deployed to the scene, the drone’s powerful optical zoom and thermal imagery is able to search large open spaces in a fraction of the time and send live footage directly to officers on the ground. Within minutes the child is located and reunited with his family.
Like most police forces across the country, Leicestershire uses drones as one of its many policing tactics - to save lives, apprehend suspects and provide assistance for operations or large scale events.
This month marks two years since the force was granted a Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) licence and in that time the team have gone from strength to strength – providing support for more than 500 emergencies and pre-planned policing activities, as well supporting other emergency services.
Now a cop with 20 years’ service, PC Matt Burton joined the drone team in October 2018. After nine months being seconded, he became a fulltime police drone pilot in June 2019 before taking on the title of lead pilot just four months later.
Along with every police officer across the country operating a drone, Matt qualified after completing a CAA approved course and has now clocked up more than 60 hours of flying.
In his time as a drone pilot Matt has been the eyes in the sky for many incidents and events – from football matches, Diwali celebrations and the Leicester Pride march through to locating missing people and catching criminals in the act.
Matt said: “We provide a similar type of air support as a helicopter but to dispatch a drone to a scene is often much quicker and obviously costs a lot less. Drones can also get a lot closer and lower to an incident and can fly in weather conditions that helicopters aren’t able to – including low cloud and poorer visibility.
“They are only ever deployed for a specific policing purpose and are not used by us as a form of Big Brother in the sky.
“By using a drone I’ve been able to locate a child with Autism who had gone missing from school. Despite a thorough search of the grounds by officers and staff there was no trace of him. By that time it was starting to get dark so the drone was sent up and we were able to locate him hiding in a hedgerow using the thermal imaging camera, I was then able to direct officers to him.
“I’ve also attended a report of a burglary where the suspect had assaulted the occupant of the house before taking off. My colleague and I were able to locate him using the drone and actually caught him attempting to break into the home of an elderly man. Luckily he was arrested before he was able to cause any further harm.
“Using a drone I’ve also been able to locate suspects who have ran from police, either after ditching a vehicle or when officers have attempted to stop them in the street.
“Although we provide assistance to officers dealing with emergency incidents we are also involved in many large scale operations and events – helping to provide a different perspective for those coordinating policing on the ground.
“These include events such as football matches and Diwali celebrations that are attended by thousands of people and are enjoyable occasions to be a part of.
“We have also used our drones to assist the fire service with large scale emergencies where getting an overview of the scene from above can help understand the sheer size of the issue and they can then ensure the right number of people and the right equipment is available.”
Since becoming a police drone pilot Matt and his colleagues have also been able to draw on the knowledge of a member of the special constabulary with decades of aviation experience.
Special Inspector John Blagden is used to manoeuvring much larger aircrafts in the sky having spent the last 25 years 35,000 feet in the air as a commercial airline pilot.
As a long-haul flyer his job often sees him away from home for around three to five days a week. Despite this he still finds the time to volunteer as a special for 60 to 70 hours a month.
During the pandemic, when many flights have been grounded, John has racked up an impressive 312 hours of volunteering in a two month period.
John originally joined as a special in 2012 and when the drone team was established two years ago he took on the role of Chief Drone Pilot.
John said: “Similar to Matt and the rest of the team, when I’m on shift I am on hand should one of the drones be required.
“But a big part of what I do is help with training and advising on procedures. With our drones we aim to maintain the same level of standards and safety you would expect with any manned aviation vehicle, such as an airplane or helicopter.”
Now, nearly two years after the first Leicestershire Police drone took to the sky, the force is looking at how the team can grow and provide assistance to many more police incidents and operations.