Unmanned flying drone flies across a farm
Unmanned flying drones are being used by criminals to scope out residential properties for potential burglaries (Getty Images)

Police in the UK are now seeing incidents were burglars are scoping out potential targets using off-the-shelf consumer drones.

Suffolk Constabulary has confirmed that there were 16 incidents involving the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) between January 2014 and March 2015, in response to a freedom of information request made by the East Anglican Daily Times.

In 10 of the incidents, the police were called to investigate by civilians who had seen the drones flying, and in one case, a UAV was flown around a residential property in September 2014, allegedly to identify it as a potential burglary target, although no one was charged for this incident.

Only one person was charged in total, for an incident where the individual got into an altercation with the owner of a drone after reporting seeing it flying in January 2015.

A Suffolk Constabulary spokesperson told IBTimes UK: "The use of drones is covered by legislation within the Air Navigation Order 2009. Responsibility for investigation and enforcement of breaches of that legislation rests with the Civil Aviation Authority, assisted where appropriate by local police forces."

Police not enforcing drone legislation independently

Suffolk Constabulary said that the number of drone incidents were still relatively low and that it was working together with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to police the incidents, but not enforcing or charging people for drone offences independently.

Over the last two years, the consumer market for drones has begun to grow as drones have become increasingly smaller. It is now easy to buy an off-the-shelf UAV that weighs between 7.5kg to 20kg and comes equipped with a sophisticated camera and remote-controlled software.

While drone guidelines set out by the CAA state that drones must be flown at least 50m away from people, buildings and airports, and must not fly any higher than 400ft or out of the line of sight of the drone's pilot, the fact remains that this is very difficult to police, particularly in quieter rural areas outside the city.

At the SkyTech 2015 drone conference in April, the CAA told IBTimes UK that it cannot enforce drone legislation on its own, and needs other parts of the government to step in and do their part, such as the Department of Transport and the police.

The National Counter Terrorism Policing Headquarters announced at a conference in April that the police will soon be taking responsibility for the illegal or irresponsible use of drones away from the CAA.

Drones make surveillance easier

If civilians see the drones, they are likely to report them flying around, as the UK public is most concerned about drones being used to spy on them, but if no one is at home to see the drone, then in theory it would be easy for a criminal to fly a drone over someone's garden fence.

Most consumer drones on the market today provide real-time video streaming to a smartphone or tablet connected to the pilot's remote controller, so it would be easy for someone to stand a few streets away and use the drone to hunt for weak security points, such as French windows, windows left open or with broken clasps, or to make sure no burglar alarm is installed.

On the plus side, the Police Federation National Detectives Forum has pointed out that the noise UAVs make is still quite significant, so criminals can risk giving themselves away using the technology to research burglary targets.

"If members of the public observe drones being used in areas which make them suspicious they should contact police using the 101 non-emergency number to report it," Paul Ford, secretary of the Police Federation National Detectives Forum told IBTimes UK.

The association recommends that homeowners practice good home security, such as making sure they have a burglary alarm installed or a security floodlight for their garden.