9 News: How drones are changing the face of policing in Australia


When Tasmanian police were searching for an alleged murderer in bushland in the state’s north, it was a drone that tracked the suspect down.Before the man’s arrest, Tasmania Police described him as a skilled bushman, adept in the wild, and possibly having camouflage paint on his face and armed with a knife.Tasmania Police said “significant” resources were used in the January search, including specialist and uniform personnel, sniffer dogs, thermal imaging and a chopper.

A NSW Police drone pilot sends a drone into the air.
A NSW Police drone pilot sends a drone into the air. (9News)

But it was a handheld drone, operated remotely by a trained police pilot, that spotted the suspect and made the breakthrough, with digital eyes in the air directing officers on the ground to the alleged murderer’s location.Australian state and territory police forces are increasingly leaning on their drone units to carry out operations just like the manhunt in Tasmania.NSW Police, with 100 drones and 90 pilots, has the biggest fleet in the country, according to information gathered by nine.com.au.

Police forces across Australia are using drones to track suspects, conduct search and rescue operations, map crime scenes, assist road safety enforcement and to surveil armed siege incidents and monitor natural disasters.Drones are now “a vital tool” in the fight against crime, a Tasmania Police spokesperson said.NSW Police said its 100-strong fleet of drones regularly “supports front line policing operations”, and that high-tech in the air can reduce the risk to conventional police units and the community.

“[Drones] provide aerial platforms for policing major events,” the NSW Police spokesperson said, alluding to the impressive power of camera-enabled drones to observe mass public gatherings.Of the other Australian police forces willing to divulge the number of drones in operation, Victoria Police confirmed they had 30 drones, and Tasmania 23 drones and 19 pilots.The Australian Federal Police, Queensland, South Australia and Northern Territory did not want to discuss specifics, citing protection of methodologies.Only Australian Capital Territory Police and Western Australia Police did not respond to comment.In the past financial year, Tasmania Police pilots launched drones in 227 operations.”These new drones are an exciting new tool to be used in a wide variety of areas of policing,” a Tasmania Police spokesperson said, discussing the merits of the small, easily maneuverable devices.”We have had a number of successes across the state where offenders in stolen and evading vehicles have been apprehended with drone support.”We have also located a number of stolen vehicles in bushland by using drones and have deployed drones to assist in searches for missing Tasmanians.”

Leading artificial intelligence (AI) expert Dr Toby Walsh, a UNSW professor, said police drones of the future will only become more powerful and capable, which has the potential to raise red flags over privacy issues.”There are some good uses of the technology in terms of being about to surveil and track people and conduct search and rescue operations,” Dr Walsh said.”But there are also worrying sides too, like surveilling large crowds in a way that changes our notion of privacy.”The concerns potentially arise as the drones and technology get more sophisticated and the drones become autonomous.”Autonomous drones do not require a human pilot, with the machines instead able to fly through AI and powerful computing systems.General trends in drone and technology tend to emerge first in the military and then cross over into police, Dr Walsh said.

“US foot soldiers in Afghanistan and Syria used small drones strapped to their wrists that they could launch off their hand to fly into potentially dangerous compounds to see if there were any bad guys around the corner.”Drones can be very useful in these high-risk situations, and that’s an instance that could be extremely useful for police.”Once the size of a family car, some drones now are no bigger than a bird or even an insect, and capable of covert and complex flight patterns.That kind of aerial capability, paired with AI and computer systems able to churn complex oceans of data, adds up to a formidable technology.The Chinese government has deployed facial recognition software on its autonomous drones that can easily find a single person in a vast outdoor concert-sized crowd, Dr Walsh said.”That takes us to a totally different place because humans simply can’t do that.”

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