There was a video I saw on Twitter a year ago which, to me, demonstrated in under a minute of footage the usefulness of c-drones in search and rescue duties. In Lincolnshire, a county in eastern England, a concerned individual had called the police after spotting a crashed car off a country road one cold February night. The police arrived but could find no trace of the driver on the dark road. Was the person wounded, disoriented, unconscious? Had he or she set out across the fields? A drone equipped with a thermal camera quickly found an unconscious man off the road in a 6 foot (2m) deep ditch, invisible in the dark; he was hospitalized.
Last week, at the Commercial UAV Expo Europe in Amsterdam, I spoke with Kevin Taylor, a Special Sergeant and the Chief Drone Pilot at Lincolnshire Police, following a presentation he made at a law enforcement and public safety panel. Kevin is an NQE [National Qualified Entity] Instructor/Assessor and has his private pilots licence (PPL) for both fixed-wing and rotary aircraft. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: I’m speaking with Kevin Taylor of the Lincolnshire Police. We just saw in the panel that there are a lot of challenges with putting together a drone unit within the police. Maybe you could tell me a little bit about what some of the chief challenges have been.
Kevin Taylor: OK, sure. Well, first of all, we needed to select the right equipment for the role that we need to do. So from our point of view, we spent a six-month project cycle looking at the different equipment that is available, that met our criteria, to be sure we could get value for money for our community, and that would give us the capability that we needed as well. That was the first challenge. And then once we decided on the equipment, we needed to select the remote operators. So we went through a selection process to make sure that the guys we got, which are all police officers, serving constables, were the right guys for the role, that they had a passion for aviation, that they had a passion for safety. And that was critical for us to get those right, the guys and girls as well, because we did have males and females on the team. So we achieved that and then of course we had to select a training provider because we have to go through the NQE training like every other commercial organization does. We selected one which has got a good reputation within the emergency services and was targeting the training towards the emergency services sector. So those were really the key things before we even turned a prop.
Following on from that, there was the public acceptance issue and we wanted the public to understand what it was we were trying to achieve, what we wanted UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) capability for. You know, there are some members of the public out there who don’t see the benefits in UAV. So it’s just been a case for us to be able to just really go out and explain to people what UAV can bring to the force, how it can streamline some of the search capability that we’ve got, how it can bring in the additional capability of searching areas where we don’t have those guys on the ground. This is not about cost saving; this is about giving additional benefit for our community. We’re not looking to cut costs. If we can cut costs as a consequence, that’s fantastic. It’s great for everybody. But we have to invest some money here into this project, we need it to pay for itself.
Q: Now, I discovered the great work you’re doing there through social media and I think it makes a very compelling case. For instance, when we see the film, the thermal imaging of the accident victim who was found in pitch darkness, by the side of the road and so forth. Social media has been a real springboard for getting your message out, hasn’t it?
Kevin Taylor: Yes. We only use Twitter, and we would like to spread it further afield. But you know, the thing for us is, this is about flying drones, we’re not a social media company. We need to find a nice balance between doing some social media, to let the members of the public see what we’re doing, and not being distracted from doing our main role, which is doing good things with drones. So we have Twitter, @lincsCOPter is our Twitter feed, and we share as much as we can. There are some things we just simply can’t share; there are ongoing cases, ongoing trials, some stuff is not shared until after the trial. And bear in mind, some of the trials can take six months, a year to come to fruition. There is stuff in the pipeline that’ll come out next month, in three months time, that we did six months ago, that the public doesn’t know about yet. But they will, all in good time and when it’s appropriate. So we just try to share as much as we humanly can. There’s data protection to consider as well. So it is a fine balance.
Q: Do you find that constables on the force have been generally positive about drone capability, helping them in their work?
Kevin Taylor: First of all, we found we not only had to sell this to the public, we had to sell it internally to our own stakeholders — constables, their supervisors, inspectors, senior officers — because they don’t know what the capability of the drone is. So we held a number of open days when we first launched to show them the capability with the daylight, the zoom capability, and the thermal as well. So we had those, we had an open invitation for them to come along and said, “Anybody who wants to come can have a look. First of all, if you’re interested in joining the team, come and tell us, have a look at what we do and how we do it. Even if you’re not interested in joining the team, come along and have a look anyway and just see what the capability is.” And, you know, we changed opinions. We had people who thought we were just getting toys, that we wanted toys, because they’re Gucci and they’re the latest thing. And when they saw the capability — you know, I always take time when I go to an incident, I spend some time with an officer who’s maybe not seen it before. Show him what I can do, show him how the camera zooms, what I can get with the camera, show him how the thermal imaging is able to spot a person, even if it’s just another police officer. And that goes a long way and then it’s in their mind. So when they’ve got an incident, they think, “Actually, I could call a drone for this”.
And as you quite rightly said about the chap in the ditch: that sergeant in charge of that incident had never seen a drone, but he’d heard about it, and he just thought, “I wonder if this is something that could help. I’ve got three officers here, we’re searching a massive area. I can’t get any more officers on the ground. They’re not available. This is all I’ve got to work with. What else can I do? What have I got? Well, I can request the helicopter or I could request the drone.” And that’s exactly what he did. And as you quite rightly said, that’s a great example of how the drone can make a difference.
Q: How do you see your work with drones, with the police, developing over the next couple of years?
Kevin Taylor: We are finding new uses every day, departments coming out and saying, could you do this or could you do that? And some of it’s like, “hmmm, we never thought about that.” But every day we see something new. For example, we have very large sites of interest such as a power station and we have emergency planning procedures in place for those. We do training for them in cases there are any incidents or any accidents, to have a good understanding of that site. We’ve got Google Earth and that’s good, but some of the images there are three years out of date, maybe new sections have been built on the buildings. So what they do is they come to us and say, “Look, do you think you could give us an image of this?” So one of the things we’ve done recently is using a third party software product that will stitch images together. So we can go off and do a three, five, 10 acre site, whatever size that site is, and we can give them one big image. So they’ve got a big site overview, but not only that, they can then zoom down, look at it in more detail, and look at high resolution imagery of a specific area.
Another example, the local football stadium, looking at entry and exit points, having good understanding of where the entry points are, the exit points in the event of an incident or any kind of emergency, that we know exactly what’s where, everybody on the ground understands it. We can give them a big aerial overview that’s up to date, that’s got everything in there, up to date with changes. So we can do that regularly as is needed.
Q: All right, thank you very much, Kev, for taking some time with us.
Kevin Taylor: You’re very welcome.