20 Jul 2016

The future is now – from targeting suspicious drones, to weaponising their own, police forces around the world are harnessing the capabilities of unmanned aerial vehicles to target crime.

Unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones, are quickly becoming more accessible as they become less expensive and as more manufacturers enter the market.  Their applications are broad – small drones are used for commercial applications from taking real estate photographs to surveying livestock, not to mention their popularity among hobbyists who might previously have flown model aircraft.

However, as the use of drones increases, law enforcement has had to innovate in order to ensure that communities remain safe given the potential for criminal misuse.

In late 2015, police in Tokyo announced that they would be patrolling areas where use of drones is forbidden with their own net-carrying, drone-disabling drones.  The news came after a drone carrying a small amount of radioactive material was able to land on the roof of the office of the Japanese prime minister in April 2015.  The police unit will locate and, if necessary, capture drones flown by members of public around important buildings. 

Other innovations for downing errant drones are also in the pipeline, including Boeing’s Compact Laser Weapons System which can track and disable an airborne drone by burning through it.

As with many technological advances, drones have traditionally been associated with military and counterterrorism applications. The capacity for small drones to be similarly weaponised is therefore clear. And while pilotless law enforcement vehicles might previously have been the stuff of science fiction, the era of drones being used by police is not just approaching, it is here.

In North Dakota, a bill introduced by Republican state representative Rick Becker to limit the powers of police to use drones was amended and passed to effectively legalise law enforcement use of armed drones.  While the bill was intended to require police to obtain a warrant before using a drone to search for evidence, it also prohibited weapons aboard drones – in order to have the warrant measure passed, compromise was required on the weapons matter after lobby groups got involved.  Moving forward, North Dakota police forces can legally use drones to operate weapons considered to be “less than lethal”, which would include weapons like Tasers, guns with rubber bullets, and tear gas or pepper spray dispensers.

In Australia, specific laws regarding weaponisation of drones have not yet been considered necessary, either in relation to criminal misuse or law enforcement.  However, with new law coming into effect in September 2016 to relax to requirements for users of drones under 2 kilograms, which includes most recreational drones, one thing which is clear is that there will soon be more drones than ever in our skies and it might not be long before lawmakers will need to turn their minds to these matters.

 

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