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An Garda Siochana are considering whether to follow the example of the PSNI in adopting robotic drones for surveillance purposes and other general uses.  It has been recently reported in a number of national newspapers that the purchase of a number of drones is “under consideration” at Garda headquarters. The move, which would undoubtedly be seen as controversial in some quarters, would be the first time the force has used the unpiloted aerial vehicles. The Defence Forces have been using drones for some years. On foreign missions they have been flown over vast areas to assess the movement of refugees fleeing trouble spots, or the movement of rebel forces into areas under the control of Irish troops.

News that using drones is under consideration by the gardai follows revelations following a Freedom of Information request that the PSNI have been using three drones. It is unclear when introduction of the drones in the Republic might happen or what type of police work they would be used for. Drones could be used discreetly to monitor sites where gardaí believe dissident republicans were storing weapons, or holding training sessions or meetings.

Drones could potentailly also be used to monitor isolated areas where gardaí believe fuel smugglers were operating or criminals were storing drugs or other contraband. They could be used to track suspect vehicles over long distances, especially into rural areas where any cars following would be easily seen. The use of drones for surveillance purposes would likely be opposed by civil rights groups, who may highlight the threat to privacy.

In the US, drones have been used to aid searches for missing persons, especially in the sea or in rivers. They have been used to take photographs of evidential value when serious traffic collisions occur. Severe weather such as snow or flooding has also been assessed abroad by police forces using drones. In recent years Garda helicopters have been used to monitor the build-up of crowds and traffic after major entertainment events such as concerts and football matches.

The aircraft is expensive to fly and maintain, and drones could be used for the same purpose at a much cheaper cost to the State. It would also be possible for Gardai to have access to drones in different parts of the State and to use them simultaneously, an option not available when using helicopters. In other jurisdictions, drones have been deployed during dangerous pursuits on the roads, with police cars backing off and allowing the aerial vehicles to take over the chase. This has lessened the dangers of continuing with a high speed chase, especially in urban areas and when it is suspected those being pursued are armed.


Wide-ranging information on how police have been using controversial surveillance drone technology in Northern Ireland was released last month for the first time. Drones, also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), resemble large model aircraft with state of the art cameras used to relay information to police officers on the ground during operations. Some models are capable of intercepting communications and accessing electronic data protected by encryption or passwords.

Responding to a Freedom of Information request, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) provided new data on where and when drones have been used here. However police refused to release any information on how or if drones are used in covert surveillance operations, citing national security concerns.

The new material on PSNI drones highlighted today shows that:

• Drones were deployed 114 times across Northern Ireland since they were first purchased in June 2013;

• The PSNI currently has nine drones consisting of three different models including one craft with a wingspan of almost ten feet. Twelve officers are trained in the use of drones;

• The overall cost of the drone project to date is £1.5 million and the technology was first purchased as part of preparations for the G8 summit in County Fermanagh; Since then drones have been used to support policing operations during Royal visits to Northern Ireland, the Belfast Marathon and the Giro d’Italia;

• Drones have also been used in bomb alerts and in nine search operations;

It has also been revealed that this latest information comes as the Northern Ireland Policing Board is due to make a decision on whether or not police should have to make a report to the board every time a drone is deployed. University of Sheffield Professor Noel Sharkey, an expert in robotics and artificial intelligence, said that while he welcomed the PSNI’s willingness to release some new information, he raised concerns about the lack of detail on how it is using drones in covert policing operations.

He said: “Information on covert deployment should also be transparent. There are always issues between transparency and security, but there needs to be clear accountability.” Security forces face the ongoing challenge of pursuing organised crime and paramilitary activity, including by dissident republicans.

The PSNI said the primary use of its drones was to provide “overt support” to district policing. It added: “Confirming or denying the specific circumstances in which the police service may or may not deploy UAVs covertly, would lead to an increase of harm to covert investigations and compromise law enforcement.”

To date the PSNI has purchased three Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). Each UAS contains three drones. The type of drones currently being used by the PSNI include:

• Micro Craft with a wing span of 3.3 feet.

• Small UAS with a typical wingspan of 9.1 feet.

• Vertical take-off and landing (mini helicopter) with awingspan of 2.5 feet.

The PSNI first purchased drones in June 2013 ahead of the G8 summit in Fermanagh when the leaders of eight of the world’s richest countries met at the Lough Erne Golf Resort. June 2013 had the highest number of drone flights in a single month to date, with 26 deployments made in Police District F, covering areas of South Tyrone and Fermanagh.

Detective Chief Superintendent Hugh Hume has said: “The increase in the number of deployments does not reflect an operational reliance on Unmanned Aerial Systems. An initial licence to operate the systems was granted solely to assist with the G8 policing operation in June 2013. No further deployments took place until November 2013 when a final licence to operate was granted.

The increase in the number of deployments is attributable to this unlicensed period when the systems did not fly. The PSNI always try to keep the community safe and if UAS can be deployed to assist with this it will be deployed. Future deployment will be determined by a variety of factors.” The PSNI data released shows that over the last two years police deployed drones across all police districts apart from areas of the north and north east including Down and Coleraine.

Drones were also used to support policing operations during Royal visits to Northern Ireland, the Belfast Marathon and the Giro d’Italia. In early discussions with the policing board the PSNI advocated the use of drones because they could be deployed easily by police officers on the ground and had lower running costs than traditional aircraft.

The PSNI have refused to release the duration of time for each deployment because it could “alert those intent on terrorist/criminal activity as to the capability and / or any methodology of the equipment being deployed”. The PSNI also said that at present it did not record any information on the cost of each individual deployment and that the cost of each drone was deemed ‘commercial-in-confidence’. However, the police did confirm that the overall cost of the project was £1.5 million.

The PSNI must review its licence for operating drones with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) on an annual basis and each officer must pass an approved CAA test before having permission to operate one. The PSNI does not need to inform the CAA every time a drone is used and only needs approval if they want to change the scope of their original permission.

Under current arrangements the PSNI can operate a drone weighing up to 7kg within a congested area and is obliged to keep the device within a visual line of sight of 400ft vertically and 500m horizontally. The PSNI is due to review its license with the CAA in October this year. Meanwhile a separate 12 month review period overseen by the policing board for the PSNI’s use of drones ended on 1 November 2014 with a report from the board’s performance committee expected this month.

The policing board will consider the future oversight arrangements for the use of drones including whether or not the board should be notified every time a drone is used by police. Board members have previously raised concerns about the human rights implications should PSNI drones be used for covert surveillance.

When purchasing the drones the PSNI assured members of the policing board that the primary use for the drones was to provide overt support to police but that should a request be made to assist with the covert investigation of crime, authorisation would be sought under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).

In a document compiled by the policing board it was noted that some models of drones are capable of intercepting communications, conducting covert surveillance and accessing electronic data protected by encryption or passwords.

Professor Sharkey believes that while drone surveillance could assist police in tackling terrorist activity or serious crime, he warned that any misuse of the technology could impact on people’s basic human rights. He said: “Information on covert deployment should be transparent. There is always an issues between transparency and security but there needs to be clear accountability.

“We should be able to know more about why something is covert without revealing sensitive security information. “We must be very wary of where technological developments can lead us. They can be highly beneficial if used appropriately or the can lead us into a creeping authoritarianism.”




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