Dutch police to test automatic reconnaissance drone

The Dutch police are going to experiment with an automatically operating reconnaissance drone, which can be sent to reports of burglaries or accidents to take a pulse before the police arrive. This should lead to a greater chance of burglars being caught, improved assistance in the event of accidents and more safety for officers. Initially, testing is carried out in a controlled environment.

No drone pilot needed

In the future, the Dutch police, like the fire service, want to make much more use of drones. There are high expectations of automatically operating reconnaissance drones, which can take off and land autonomously and are controlled from a central control room. So there is no need to be a drone pilot on location to control the drone. In the event of a disaster, a drone can quickly arrive on location to forward camera images to the control room. Based on this, a good estimate can be made of the required police force.

According to the police, this brings several advantages. In the event of an accident, an estimate can already be made of the necessary assistance, so that the emergency services can be deployed as effectively as possible. Secondly, in the event of a burglary or robbery, it is possible to quickly gain insight into the situation, which increases the chance of the robbers being caught. And thirdly, the use of a drone can increase the safety of its own employees.

Pilot project

As of this month, a pilot project will take place in Enschede, carried out by the East Netherlands Unit. Various scenarios will be practiced on a closed site that is part of the Twente Safety Campus. The drone will be used in various simulated incidents. The images from the drone are viewed by an employee of the Operational Center. This then determines the required police deployment on the ground.

During the trial period, not only the technology and the mutual cooperation are tested. Attention is also paid to the preconditions for the deployment of an automatically flying police drone. “During this phase, the objective is also to conduct research for each application into the impact of this drone deployment on privacy, ethical issues and data security in conjunction with proportionality,” the police said in a statement.

Regulations problematic

In time, the automatic reconnaissance drone will also be deployed in the public domain. But before that happens, a lot still needs to be done in terms of legislation and regulations. At the moment, flying drones out of sight of the operator (BVLOS) is not allowed in uncontrolled airspace. In the future, U-space must ensure that no dangerous situations can arise during a flight, but its implementation – as it appears now – will take years.

This not only hinders the deployment of reconnaissance drones such as those used by the police and the fire brigade. Other parties that want to fly drones over long distances also run into this limitation. For example, ANWB and PostNL are experimenting with a medical drone that will fly between hospitals, blood banks and labs. Temporary corridors are now being set up to make these test flights possible. But that’s not a long-term option, let alone that it’s useful for last-minute bets on random flight paths, as would be the case with the police drone.

Social acceptance

Another threshold concerns the social acceptance of automatic (police) drones. Because certainly if no pilot is visible on the ground in the immediate vicinity, how can citizens know who owns a flying drone? What happens to camera images of surrounding houses and bystanders during or after a deployment? In other words: how is privacy guaranteed?

According to the police, this issue is also being considered: “If the drone is deployed in the public domain, the applicable privacy rules and established ethical guidelines for taking images and flying in the public domain are observed.”

Hybrid drone

The drone that the police will be experimenting with is the Avy Aera. This is a hybrid drone developed in the Netherlands that is characterized by a long flight time and a large range (up to 100 km). The drone can take off and land vertically like a helicopter, and then flies further like an airplane thanks to its wing shape. The cruising speed of the drone is approximately 90 km/h.

The drone is equipped with multiple cameras, including an optical zoom camera and a thermal imager. The drone can take off from a docking station, which can be placed on the roof of a regional police station, for example. After each flight, the drone is automatically charged for the next deployment. During a reconnaissance mission, the drone will reach a maximum flying height of 120 meters.

Network of drone boxes

The pilot project will last two years. After the test flights over the Twente Safety Campus, the aim is to use the reconnaissance drone in a small part of Twente and Overijssel. In the long term, the idea is to install a nationwide network of drone boxes. Depending on the location of an incident, a drone can take off from the nearest drone box to visualize the situation.

A prototype drone box for the Avy Aero. Source: Avy

Wiebe de Jager

Wiebe de Jager is the founder of Dronewatch (available in Dutch and English). Wiebe is an experienced drone pilot (EASA Specific category certified) and has published a number of bestselling books about drone photography and cinematography.

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