Police use of drones to catch criminals, find missing people and improve safety at events has soared.
Since trialling the “eyes in the sky” across the Thames Valley and Hampshire force areas in 2019, dozens more pilots have been trained and flying hours have dramatically increased.
The Joint Operations Unit now deploys drones around 1,500 times a year.
It is also helping develop technology that will allow them to fly further, outside a pilot’s line of sight.
Insp Guy Summers, who manages air and marine support across the Thames Valley, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, said there had been a huge investment over the last four years.
He said: “We’ve gone from 15 to 20 pilots [and] seven drones to 130 pilots and 49 drones.
“We’ve also gone from a couple of hundred jobs a year to 1,500 deployments a year across the two forces so it’s a massive change.”
The rapidly changing pace of drone innovation remains a challenge.
“We, in the police, need to make sure that we keep up with technology, but not race too far ahead and then find that the product we have been given is not fit for standard,” said Insp Summers.
“But if we spend two years trying to find the best product, we’re two years behind. So that’s a real balance.”
Current regulations state the police must be able to see a drone to fly it safely but the Joint Operations Unit is working with the National Police Chiefs Council, the Civil Aviation Authority and others on technology that could allow pilots to fly one as far as 62 miles (100km).
Insp Summers said accurate hazard detection systems would be essential.
“We need to be safe, so we need to be able to see all the other aircraft or birds or anything else in the air space,” he said.
Civil liberty campaigners like Big Brother Watch have called the use of drones by police “sinister”.
But Insp Summers insists his drones do not go on “fishing trips” and pilots act on intelligence only, assisting active investigations, searching for missing people or keeping crowds safe at large public gatherings.
At the Reading and the Isle of Wight’s festivals, and at Henley Regatta, drones were in the air for around 70 hours.
During a national drugs enforcement program called Operation Mille earlier this year, Thames Valley Police deployed more drones than any other force in the country.
They used infra-red cameras to confirm the locations of dozens of cannabis factories.
A drone was also used in the arrest of Alecio Anjos, who was spotted behind Maidenhead Police station with a firearm.
He was given a 10 week prison sentence for possessing what turned out to be an imitation firearm.