How ‘eye in the sky’ drones will save lives in South Yorkshire

Road policing officer PC Wes Turner has been it before.

A suspect has abandoned a car, and fled, after PC Turner’s team have pursued him.

Traffic officer Wes Turner, based at Tinsley, Sheffield, with one of the new South Yorkshire Police drones

Traffic officer Wes Turner, based at Tinsley, Sheffield, with one of the new South Yorkshire Police drones

With a lot of land to search, it leaves the police with a daunting task.

Except now, PC Turner will have a new option to call on.

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Mexborough based PC Gary Richards at the controls of one of South Yorkshire Police's new drones

Mexborough based PC Gary Richards at the controls of one of South Yorkshire Police's new drones

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He can turn to one of a fleet of 11 drones which have been brought in to police South Yorkshire.

Fitted out with cameras, a powerful zoom lens, and even thermal night vision, he can now find the suspect from above.

You may have seen the scene on television shows looking at police helicopters.

PC Gordon Sitch, operations manager for South Yorkshire Police's drones project, based at Doncaster Sheffield Airport

PC Gordon Sitch, operations manager for South Yorkshire Police's drones project, based at Doncaster Sheffield Airport

But now South Yorkshire only has a shared helicopter with the rest of Yorkshire, and the new drones mean they have just stepped up their aerial surveillance capacity.

PC Turner has a special interest in all this – he is one of 19 officers who have just been trained up to operate the drones. It takes the total in the force up to 21.

He and others are demonstrated their skills at a training session at Finningley, near Doncaster. The high pitched buzz of electric motors fills the air as officers, paired up with instructors, are put through their paces.

In addition to learning to manoeuvre the aircraft, they are learning to operate the cameras, which can zoom in with a magnification of 30 times the original image, see in the dark, and take photographs. They are not helicopters though. They will not have the speed of travel, and can only be flown within the eyesight of the operator on the ground.

One of the new South Yorkshire Police drones in flight over Doncaster

One of the new South Yorkshire Police drones in flight over Doncaster

Although he is based at Tinsley in Sheffield, he is one of a team who can be dispatched anywhere across the county.

Two drones have been operating in the force for sometime, through a small team based at Doncaster Sheffield Airport, headed by PC Gordon Sitch.

PC Sitch, operations manager for the South Yorkshire Police drone project, started the scheme in April 2017. They were given the green light to become operational by the Civil Aviation Authority in February last year – but this month they have expanded with the extra nine aircraft and 19 officers to operate them.

He said: “We have already started to deploy the drones. They were used at the Sheffield Wednesday against Sheffield United derby match, and at Tramlines. They are good for crowd control.

“But now they will be doing more regular policing. They are going to be used to do things like helping local police on the ground in searches for high risk missing people..

“We have already made arrests using these machines. Our first spontaneous deployment was after an incident occurring near the football ground in Doncaster, near Lakeside. There had been a pursuit, and a vehicle was abandoned. But the drones were in Sheffield at the time, planning for the Sheffield derby.

Supporters at this month's Sheffield derby: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Supporters at this month's Sheffield derby: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

“We couldn’t draw on the National Police Air Service because they were working on a high risk missing person. But we arrived on the scene with the drone not long after.

“One man had been detained, but two others were thought to have gone to ground in nearby allotments. After seven minutes in the air, the second man had been arrested because of the drone. Soon after that it found the third. All of them were wanted by another force.”

Now the drones are being booked up for operations across the force. The team already have a packed diary for their first weeks of operation.

They are likely to to used by neighbourhood teams to help observe antisocial behaviour. They may be used to observe nuisance bikers. They are lined up for use at the Tramlines music festival, as well as football matches.

PC Sitch believes the machines will be a gamechanger.

“They will definitely save lives,” he said. “If you’re looking for a high risk missing person, something like this can search large areas of ground quickly, where it would take hours to search on foot.

“When there are not enough helicopters to go round, these are going to fill that gap and give us an aviation asset that can resolve incidents quickly and safely.”

Advantages

The officers who are training up to be the new generation of drone pilots can see the benefits of the new fleet of aircraft.

Sheffield based traffic officer PC Wes Turner will be one of two pilots from road traffic trained in the use of drones, but he could be deployed anywhere in South Yorkshire where he is needed.

He can already see the advantages it will bring.

“For a start, the aerial photography will be a big help in investigating serious car crashes,” he said. “They will also be helpful in tactical pursuit, or any other situations where you have a suspect trying to flee the scene.

“We have spare batteries on board and can change them in seconds, and re-charge them in our cars.”

Mexborough-based PC Gary Richards has also joined the new group of officers trained up for the drones.

“It’s been an intense course this week, starting with the theory and the legal side, before moving on to the practical skills of flying the drones.

“But from the point of view of an officer like me, its going to mean we can search large areas more quickly, spot trespassers on property, and safety and easily survey enclosed premises that we can’t get into by foot.”

PC Simon Cunningham, a police officer for 18 years, is a member of the Barnsley tasking team, a group of officers who carry out raids when the police have warrants to reach properties. He has also joined the pool of pilots.

He believes the new drones will make it harder for suspects to flee when police arrive at their door, because they will be able to watch from above – picking up anyone leaving the house.

Crowds at Tramlines 2018. Picture: Dean Atkins.

Crowds at Tramlines 2018. Picture: Dean Atkins.