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Police Scotland drones to use AI to help in missing person searches

Algorithm trained to spot human forms in rural environments and is ‘twice as quick’

Artificial intelligence (AI) technology is being incorporated into Police Scotland’s two operational drones to help officers find missing people in rural areas.

The AI algorithm which has been developed by academics, two technology companies and the force has been trained to spot human beings quicker using hundreds of hours of footage of officers in different clothing, positions and situations.

Police Scotland's two drones - or Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) - became operational in Aberdeen and Inverness on 1 May this year. The force is responsible for 28,168 square miles, covering a third of the UK’s landmass with a range of urban, rural, island and remote communities.

The incorporation of the AI technology will help their operators cover large areas of ground in the search for a missing person, reducing the need for lengthy and meticulous checks from teams of officers on the ground.

RPAS will be used in both urban and rural environments to get an aerial view of locations which are typically difficult to get to. Deployed by specially trained officers based within Operational Support Units, the RPAS will also be available to support local policing incidents and pre-planned operations and events.

Computers with very large amounts of data processing power were previously required to run similar technology, rendering it immobile. However, the specifically designed algorithms developed in this project can be used on a smartphone or tablet connected to an RPAS.

Trained with hundreds of hours of footage of officers in different clothing, positions, and situations at police premises, the AI scours an image and can locate a person within seconds at a distance of up to 150 metres. The system is twice as fast as other algorithms and its ability to recognise a human is enhanced the more it is used.

The RPAS is operated by a specially trained officer on the ground, while another officer receives a real-time video feed from the RPAS cameras on a smartphone.

Although initially being employed in the search for missing and vulnerable people, the technology could potentially be used in a variety of other applications, including monitoring wildlife on land and at sea.

The technology, thought to be the first of its kind used by police forces in the UK, is a form of machine learning that provides real-time image analysis for identifying humans in rural areas. It has been developed by a consortium of partners comprising of Thales UK, the University of the West of Scotland, CENSIS, and Police Scotland.

Trials of the new system already underway, the project team expects the technology to be deployed in searches for missing and vulnerable people in Scotland in the near future.

Inspector Nicholas Whyte, Police Scotland Air Support Unit, said: “The use of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems in an operational policing environment is still a relatively new field and this collaboration presents a unique opportunity for Police Scotland to be involved in the development of new technology which will enhance the service delivered to the people of Scotland.”

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