Suffolk police could turn to drones to cut helicopter costs

Drones have already been trialled in other police areas, including Merseyside.

Drones have already been trialled in other police areas, including Merseyside. - Credit: PA

Suffolk police could use unmanned drones as an alternative to the expensive helicopter that is due to be moved from Wattisham Airfield in two years’ time.

The proposal has been made by Police and Crime Commissioner Tim Passmore in a bid to cut costs.

The helicopter is provided by the National Police Air Service (NPAS) and currently covers Suffolk and Norfolk from its Wattisham base.

However the costs to the police are high – Suffolk has to pay £800,000 a year for 250 hours of flights while Norfolk pays £360,000 for the same amount of time.

Mr Passmore told members of Suffolk County Council that he was seeking a reduction in this cost because it was such a drain on resources.

He said: “If we could save £400,000 we could take on another eight police officers. We have to ask which is the best value for money?”

After the meeting Mr Passmore said the police would be looking into the possibility of using more fixed-wing flights or using drones as an alternative to buying expensive time in police helicopters.

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Because the decision on whether to buy air services is considered “operational”, it is an issue for the chief constable – but Mr Passmore said they were in agreement

Mr Passmore said: “The fact is the amount we are being asked to pay NPAS is unacceptable, I have discussed this with Gareth (Wilson – Acting Chief Constable) and he understands the position.

“We have to look at getting a better deal for Suffolk. Whether that is with fixed-wing aircraft, using a drone for some surveillance work – or boosting the dog unit to help with searches. This cannot continue.”

Mr Passmore said he would like to see the Government looking into the possibility of all the county’s blue light services sharing a single helicopter.

Once the NPAS leaves Wattisham in 2017 the nearest helicopter will be based at Boreham, near Chelmsford, and it will take at least 20 minutes longer to reach incidents in Suffolk.

The county will also be served by fixed-wing aircraft based at East Midlands Airport at Castle Donington in Derbyshire.

Police forces in other parts of the country have already tested unmanned drones for surveillance work – Sussex police used one near Gatwick Airport during a three-month trial last year.

However, so far none have replaced the work of a police helicopter.

Commercially-available drones have a much more limited range than a traditional helicopter, although they could be useful in surveillance and in searching restricted areas.

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