police drone
Devon and Cornwall police use modified DJI Inspire 1 drone to hunt for missing peopleDevon & Cornwall Police

UK police forces have begun trialing the use of drones to help find missing people and photograph crime scenes. A six-month trial has started in Devon and Cornwall, with officers in Dorset starting their own experiments in late November.

The trial will see four drones used in total across the two forces, each equipped with high-definition cameras for recording video and taking photographs. Chinese drone manufacturer DJI has been selected to provide the hardware for this trial, in the form of the Phantom 2+ and the Inspire 1. From 2 November, one drone is based in Plymouth and the other will be in Exeter.

Both models of drone are aimed at the consumer market, although at £2,000, the Inspire 1 is one of the most expensive commercial drones on sale, boasting a flight time of approximately 18 minutes and the ability to fly in wind speeds up to 18m per second. Extra battery packs will be carried with pilots to quickly extend this.

The drones are intended to compliment the aerial work already carried out by the National Police Air Service helicopter, and the forces involved stress the drones are not to be seen as a cheaper replacement.

There are currently three Devon and Cornwall officers trained to use the drones, plus three more in Dorset, with plans to train more if the trial is a success. One of those officers is inspector Andy Hamilton, who is leading the trials. He said: "Using a drone to capture footage on difficult terrain and hard to reach areas such as cliffs or woodland to find a missing person, combat wildlife crime or even a firearm incident, will allow officers to gain vital information, quickly, safely and allow us to respond effectively at the scene."

The drones can be set up and flown in just a few seconds, then give officers the ability to record HD video - or watch live from a smartphone or tablet - and fly to a crime scene or traffic accident much more quickly than it would take a helicopter to arrive. Footage recorded by the drones could be used as evidence in court. A Twitter account, @DC_PoliceDrones, has been created for the public to find out how the drones are being used.

Hamilton added: "This technology still has its limitations; the models we are trialling are currently unable to fly at night or in adverse weather. But having the option to put a drone in the air in a few minutes' notice could help save lives."